Taking A God’s Eye View

Pin by Kathy Fulkerson on spending time with Jesus | Jesus, Worship jesus,  Worship

Let’s imagine, just for the sake of argument, that all of us atheists are wrong and God actually exists. What would He see when He looks at the universe? What would He think? Before you dismiss me and my hubris (something along the lines of, “How dare you presume to know the mind of God (puny mortal)?”), we supposedly know something about the answer to these questions; after all, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” So, at the very least, we know God is capable of perceiving things, and thinking about them (in this case, making a judgement). That is all I am going to assume in this article, but it’s enough for us to draw a problematic conclusion about the perspective of a being like God.

Perception

What is it to perceive? Well, in a sense, it is nothing more than possessing sense organs capable of taking in information from the outside (e.g. eyes, ears, etc.), and having some means of making sense of it all (e.g. a brain). However, this description makes perception sound like a primarily positive process; open up the senses, flip the switch on the CPU that will crunch the data, and the faster your processor, the better the results; the more advanced your hardware, the more you perceive. I can’t think of a more apropos sentiment to reflect our optimistic, no-limits, ‘anything is possible with the right combination of the right widgets’ age, and when you’re dealing with the realm of inert matter, it is precisely that optimistic, no-limits attitude you want in your corner. However, the wheels start to come off the wagon when we turn to look at the mind, and, unfortunately for science, this is precisely where perception belongs.

In the realm of the mind, the scientific formula for success doesn’t always apply. If our goal is to manipulate, or make use of, the world around us, we are usually justified in looking for, and expecting to find, better ways to get the job done. The only limits one could encounter are physical ones; things like the speed of light, or the shape of a particular molecule. Until you hit the speed of light, you can always go faster, whether that means having more horses, a more efficient combustion engine, or a more massive black hole powering your spaceship. We tend to carry this way of thinking over into the mind; in this case, perception, which would then suggest that a more powerful ‘brain’ (perhaps one taking advantage of quantum processes), could perceive more. There may be a limit somewhere, but it would be a physical one; for example, how closely the components of the ‘brain’ could be fitted together. However, not all limits are ones enforced by physical laws, and not all finitude is something to be overcome (even where it is possible to do so).

I said earlier that perception is not a “primarily positive” process. By this, I meant that what is important in perceiving is not actually the obtaining, but the excluding, of data. In other words, the central characteristic of perception is negative. Now, your first thought might be, “Of course we have to filter out most of what comes in through our senses, but this is a function of the weakness of the human brain. Dial up the processor speeds, get some parallel processing going, and we can take in more – perceive more – of what’s going on around us. Therefore, technology will eventually enhance human perception.” This is almost certainly true, but has missed the point. A chip we can implant in the brain may one day enable us to perceive more colours than the unaided, ‘natural’ eye/brain, for example, but I have something more fundamental in mind. In order for an object to appear before us, in order for us to perceive it, irrespective of the colour depth we attain, or the distance at which we can make it out, or any other superficial enhancements, it must first stand out in our visual field. In other words, everything else must recede into a background which is only dimly perceived, if it is perceived at all. Perception itself thus entails a double movement; one positive, one negative. In the former, an object of interest comes to the fore, while in the latter, every other object fades into insignificance.

There are three features worth emphasising about this double movement. The first is that it doesn’t matter which one of the movements we prioritise, the positive or the negative; either way, both aspects are always operative. In truth, they are like opposite sides of the same coin; you can’t have the one without the other because the ‘other’ is just the ‘one’ inverted. Secondly, this negation at the heart of perception amounts to a limitation; i.e. in order to see ‘this,’ you will have to not see ‘that. ‘This’ and ‘that’ are, of course, variable depending on the situation, but you can’t see both at the same time. For example, I can look at a painting and focus on one person’s face. When I do this, everything else in the painting recedes into the background. However, in the next moment, I can turn my attention to a tree, formerly in the background, at which point everything else (including the person’s face) fades into the background. If I look at one leaf on the tree next, the tree itself, formerly in the foreground, then becomes the background. If you still think something tricky is going on here, you might then look at the painting as a whole and declare victory, but, of course, ‘this’ painting now just stands out against ‘that’ wall against which it is hanging. We can formulate this as a general rule: every perceived ‘this’ requires an unperceived ‘that.’ The third point is that this limitation (in order to see ‘this,’ we must forego seeing ‘that’) is not something that can be overcome; it is just what it means to perceive. No matter how incredible your eye, no matter how enhanced your brain, there is a fundamental limitation that is essential in perception; you can’t see everything at once.

Thought

When we think about thought, what usually happens is we start from an ill-defined concept, and then, precisely because this initial idea is so poorly formulated, we can add virtually any metaphor and concept we like on our way to crafting a picture that satisfies whatever religious, new age, scientific, or philosophical beliefs we happen to have, while at the same time studiously avoiding anything remotely resembling rigorous thought. The ill-defined concept I am talking about is one that sees the mental as some kind of internal ‘realm’ defined in opposition to an external ‘realm’ of extended matter. Exactly what this ‘internal realm’ is supposed to mean, or how it is supposed to arise, no one has the faintest idea, but we proceed from it anyway, merrily adding fiction after fiction, empty concept after empty concept, until we are so far down a rabbit hole filled with ‘consciousness,’ ‘Consciousness,’ ‘qualia,’ ‘Being,’ ‘Becoming,’ ‘Mind,’ ‘Absolute Mind,’ and who knows what else, we can’t even remember what we were trying to explain in the first place.

The very first thing we must dismiss then is this notion that the mental is ‘internal’ (not a big ask, in my opinion, because this proposition doesn’t mean anything anyway; what, pray tell, is it inside?). The universe has to be ‘big’ enough to include the mental in it without the creation of a magical ‘realm’ over and above it. If thought doesn’t arise naturally and effortlessly out of the basic constituents of the universe, we are chasing fairies at the bottom of the garden. In other words, the mental is in the universe, not in addition to it. (Of course, we have to beware here of what I call ‘ground-floor’ theories of consciousness, which purport to ‘explain’ the mental by simply declaring that experience (or mind, or consciousness, or [insert other empty concept here]) is fundamental to the universe (e.g. idealism, panpsychism, etc.), when, really, they have done nothing more than take the ‘small’ mystery of individual minds and replace it with a universe-sized mystery – a bad trade-off no matter how you look at it… but that’s a hobby horse I won’t be riding today.)

I won’t be going into precisely how the mental arises as a natural part of the universe here, but there is one aspect of this process that bears on our topic; namely, that it can’t be “primarily positive” in nature. Exactly as we saw with perception, and for precisely the same reasons, thought must exclude much, much, more than it includes in order to be about anything. A principal component of thought is therefore negation, or what amounts to the same thing, limitation. Again, we must resist the temptation to suppose that a ‘better’ brain than ours could simply ‘think’ more things at once. If you haven’t ‘closed off,’ or ‘negated,’ some (read ‘most’) aspects of reality, narrowed your focus down to a, by comparison, tiny sliver of the whole, you aren’t thinking anything. The same three features we identified concerning perception apply here, and don’t, I think, need any further elaboration: the positive (the thought you are thinking) and the negative (all the thoughts you are not thinking) are two sides of the same coin; in order to think ‘this,’ you can not also think that; and you can’t think everything at once.

—————     Detour – Consciousness     —————

That is enough for us to continue, but there is one final point that just occurred to me, which, while not directly related to the topic of this article, I think sheds some more light on the thorny issue of how the mental arises in the universe. (I know I said I wasn’t going to discuss this, but it will be a short detour, I promise.) We have said that thought is characterised by a negation, or exclusion, of possible thoughts. I suspect that our final understanding of consciousness itself will have to include this privation, not as a feature, but as an essential element. In other words, we can’t say that consciousness excludes a whole range of possible thoughts to serve as background for the thought I am thinking now (by contrast, we can say that the organism negates possible percepts in order to perceive one of them); rather, consciousness is this negating.

Imagine the world from the point of view of a smartphone. Events happen to, and around, it; it’s even able to ‘sense’ some of these events, ‘hearing’ voice commands, and ‘seeing’ through its camera, but it doesn’t have a single thought about any of these things. Why not? The true, but tautological and profoundly unhelpful, answer is to note that it isn’t constructed in the ‘right’ way. We can do better than this. What does “the right way” entail? Any answer to this question must, I suspect, include the fact it doesn’t discriminate between events. Every event that happens to it is registered and absorbed by it one moment, and gone without a trace the next. This sensory promiscuity and total absorption in the present is, in fact, a plenitude, a boundless positivity in which nothing is excluded. In being completely open in this way, in indiscriminately ‘knowing’ everything, the smartphone knows nothing. Consciousness, or thought, would only occur, not through the addition of anything extra into this picture of the universe (a magical ‘consciousness-force’ in all fundamental particles, or, even worse, an inexplicable ‘consciousness-substrate’ within which all thoughts play out), but from negating parts of this universe, closing parts of it off. The ability to not react to stimuli would then be where consciousness begins. Conscious thought is a privation, not a positive feature. Again, we must be careful here. It is not that thought negates, thought doesn’t do anything (this would be to beg the question, and, even worse, reify thought); rather, thought is the exclusion, the negation. (If you’ve read any Sartre, you will see that all I’ve done is affirm exactly what he already told us over half a century earlier; although we got there following a metaphysical, rather than an ontological, path.)

End of Detour

—————     Thank You for Your Patience     —————

The World from God’s Perspective

Finally, we come to God. We aren’t going to get far in this last section unless we clarify exactly what we mean with this term. Few words are as open to interpretation, reinterpretation, misinterpretation, and obfuscation as this one (although ‘consciousness,’ in my opinion, comes close!), but we must surely be able to give a broad outline that most theologically-minded people could agree on. Whatever your denomination or personal take on divinity, I think few would contest the proposition that God is infinite, eternal, and transcendent. He is the three ‘omnis;’ omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; the alpha and the omega. In short, God is All. If we are to take these assertions seriously, and not as mere meaningless platitudes devoid of content, placeholders for an Absolute Mystery about which we can actually say and think nothing, then it is here that we already start to run into problems because what it has done is inadvertently reduce God to a deaf, blind, and dumb presence; certainly nothing to which we could attribute intelligence, or mind, or even perception. To affirm that God is All is to make Him so vast, so all-inclusive, that He is the perfect embodiment (figuratively speaking, of course) of that positive plenitude of which I was speaking earlier. There is no ‘room’ for finitude, negation, or limitation in such a being, and as we have seen, without finitude, without the capacity to not see or think some things, one cannot see or think anything.

A ubiquitous God who is all things and all times and all places could never see or think anything. This is similar to the way an eye cannot see itself. Even when we look into a mirror, the eye we see there is never the eye that is seeing; rather, we see the eye as an inert thing, a lump of matter completely describable in biological terms. No matter how deeply we study the eye in the mirror, we will never find the eye that is actually doing the looking. But God can’t even get that far. Where is the mirror God could hold up to see this and that person, or this and that situation? He is this and that person, this and that situation! Even if such a mirror were conceivable, by definition, God would be that mirror, too! God’s positive plentitude is so complete that it drowns out all of the details we humans take for granted. Think about a street lit by a sun that shines on it from all possible angles. At first, you might think this would illuminate every little detail, granting you perfect vision, but actually, you would discover that all relief, all depth, all sense of contour would disappear. A scene is only what it is when shadow provides contrast to light.

In moving from the object of perception or thought to the subject, we discover another fundamental limitation, or rather, we note a limitation that is the precise inverse of the one we identified in the object; namely, perception and thought require a perspective. To see a thing is to see it from here. To think a thought is to think it from a particular mental vantage point. And these ‘locations’ both necessitate that one be a part, not the whole. Perspective is impossible if one is all perspectives. Now, we see the error (well, one of the errors, anyway) of the great monotheisms. They were too ambitous. Their God doesn’t just know a lot, He knows everything. He doesn’t just see a lot; He sees everything. He isn’t just really, really big; He is everything. And when the dust settles from all this ‘alpha and omega-ing,’ what we are left with is a God so impossibly vast and all-encompassing that He ends up knowing, seeing, and being nothing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s