The Power to Understand "God"

by Liron5 min read12th Sep 201945 comments


Conversation (topic)Religion

This is Part VI of the Specificity Sequence

“God” is a classic case of something that people should be more specific about. Today’s average college-educated person talking about God sounds like this:

Liron: Do you believe in God?
Stephanie: Yeah, I’d say I believe in God, in some sense.
Liron: Ok, in what sense?
Stephanie: Well, no one really knows, right? Like, what’s the meaning of life? Why is there something instead of nothing? Even scientists admit that we don’t understand these things. I respect that there’s a deeper kind of truth out there.
Liron: Ok, I remember you said your parents are Christian and they used to make you go to church sometimes… are you still a Christian now or what?
Stephanie: At this point I wouldn’t be dogmatic about any one religion, but I wouldn’t call myself an atheist either. Maybe I could be considered agnostic? I feel like all the different religions have an awareness that there’s this deep force, or energy, or whatever you want to call it.
Liron: Ok, so, um… do you pray to God?
Stephanie: No, I don’t really say prayers anymore, but I prayed when I was younger and I appreciate the ritual. The Western religions believe in praying to God and being saved. The Eastern religions believe in meditation and striving toward enlightenment. There are a lot of different paths to the same spiritual truth… I just have faith that there is a truth, you know?

What did you think of Stephanie’s answers? I’m pretty sure most people would be like, “Yeah, sounds right to me. I’m just glad you didn’t ask me to explain it. I really would have struggled if you’d put me on the spot like that, but she did a pretty good job.”

If we were asking Stephanie about her fantasy sports team picks, we’d expect her to explain what she believes and why she believes it, grounding her claims in specific predictions about the outcomes of future sportsball games.

But there’s a social norm that when we ask someone about “God”, it’s okay for them to squirt an ink cloud of “truth”, “energy”, “enlightenment”, “faith”, and so on, and make their getaway.

Let’s activate our specificity powers. We’ve seen that the best way to define a term is often to ground the term, to slide it down the ladder of abstraction. How would Stephanie ground her concept of “God”? Her attempts might look like this:

  • The universal force that people pray to.
  • The energy that makes the universe exist.
  • The destination that all religions lead to.

Ooh, do you notice how these descriptions of "God" have an aura of poetic mystery if you read them out loud? Unfortunately, any mystery they have means they’re doing a shitty job grounding the concept in concrete terms. I’m calling in dialogue-Liron.

Liron: Let’s ground the concept of “God”. You said you currently believe in God. What if tomorrow you didn’t believe in God anymore? What would be noticeably different about a world where you didn’t believe in God?
Stephanie: Well, on most days I don’t think about God much, so it might not affect my day. But God still exists whether you believe in Her or not, don’t you think?
Liron: Ok, let’s say for the sake of argument that I believe there’s no God. Then it sounds like we don’t see eye to eye about the universe, right?
Stephanie: Right.
Liron: And let’s say we’ve never talked with each other about God before, so neither of us knows yet whether the other believes in God or not. If we just go about our lives, when would we first notice that we don’t see eye to eye about the universe?
Stephanie: Maybe in a discussion like this, where someone starts talking about who believes in God, and I say “yes” and you say “no”.
Liron: Yeah, that’s what I suspected: The way to ground your concept of “God” is nothing more than “A word that some people prefer to say they believe in.” Which is just about as empty as it gets for words.
Stephanie: You’re jumping to that conclusion pretty fast. If I believe in God and you don’t, I think there’s more to it than just a choice I make to say that I believe in God.
Liron: Ok, so to help me ground your concept of “God”, tell me another specific scenario where I can observe some consequence of the fact that you believe in God, besides hearing the words “I believe in God” coming out of your mouth.
Stephanie: How about: I think that the universe has some kind of higher purpose.
Liron: Ok, so not only does believing in “God” imply that you’re likely to speak the words “I believe in God”, it also implies that you’re likely to speak the words “the universe has some kind of higher purpose”. I still suspect that in order to ground the concept of “God”, I don’t need to pay attention to anything in the world beyond the verbalizations you make when you’re having what you think are deep conversations.

It would also be interesting to ask Stephanie what Sam Harris asked a guest on his Making Sense podcast: “Would you believe in God if God didn’t exist?” Is there something in our external reality, beyond your own preferences for what words you were taught to say and what words you feel good saying, that can in principle be flipped one way or the other to determine whether or not you believe in God? I suspect the answer is no.

Now consider how the dialogue would have gone differently if I were talking to Bob, a bible literalist who believes that God answers his prayers:

Liron: Let’s say we’ve never talked with each other about God before, so neither of us knows yet whether the other believes in God or not. If we just go about our lives, when would we first notice that we don’t see eye to eye about the universe?
Bob: You’ll see me kneeling in prayer, and then you’ll see my prayers are more likely to get answered. Like when I know someone is in the hospital, I pray for their speedy recovery, and the folks I pray for will usually recover more speedily than the folks no one prays for.
Liron: Oh okay, cool. So we can ground your “God” as “the thing which makes people recover in the hospital faster when you pray for them”. Congratulations, that’s a nicely grounded concept whose associated phenomena extend beyond verbalizations you make.

Unlike Stephanie’s concept, Bob’s concept of “God” has earned the respectable status of being concrete. Bob’s prayer-answering God is as concrete as Helios, the chariot-pulling sun god.

I wonder if this party died when someone invented dark glasses to look at the sun with.

From a specificity standpoint, Stephanie’s concept of God is empty and weird, while Bob’s concept is completely normal and fine.

On the other hand, Bob’s concept is demonstrably wrong, and Stephanie’s isn’t. But it’s easy to be not-wrong when you’re talking about empty concepts. Here’s Stephanie being not-wrong about “spirits”:

Liron: Do you believe in spirits?
Stephanie: Yes
Liron: Ok, how do I ground “spirit”? How do I know when to label something as a spirit?
Stephanie: They’re a special type of beings.
Liron: Do you hear them speak to you?
Stephanie: No, I don’t think so.
Liron: If tomorrow spirits suddenly didn’t exist anymore, do you think you’d notice?
Stephanie: Hm, I don’t know about that.

Ladies and gentleman, she’s not wrong!

Of course, she’s not right either, but that’s okay with her. She doesn’t enjoy talking about “God”, and when she does she’s only playing to not-lose, not playing to win.

Equipped with the power of specificity, it’s easy for us to observe the emptiness of Stephanie’s “God”. It’s harder for us to explain why all the intelligent Stephanies of the world are choosing to utter the sentence, “I believe in [empty concept]”.

Eliezer Yudkowsky traces the historical lineage of how Bobs (God-believers) begat Stephanies (God-believers-in):

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence — and finding disconfirming evidence in its place — did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, “I believe because I believe.”

In Taboo Your Words, Eliezer uses the power of specificity to demolish the nice-sounding claim that religions are all paths to the same universal truth:

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term “God” taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word “faith” taboo, and asking them why they believe it.
Though mostly they won’t be able to answer at all, because it is mostly profession in the first place, and you cannot cognitively zoom in on an audio recording.

In your own life, try to avoid the word “God”, and just discuss what you specifically want to discuss. If your conversation partner introduces the word “God”, your best move is to ground their terms. Establish what specifically they’re talking about, then have a conversation about that specific thing.

Next post: The Power to Be Emotionally Mature