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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A God that Could be Real - Book Review

Nancy Ellen Abrams' latest book provides insight on how a naturalist and life-long skeptic could make spiritual sense out of world which she believes is necessarily closed to any supernatural entity.


From the start, assumptions are made about the character of the universe.  In the introduction, she makes two points which dominated the book: 1. "All the old views of God are demonstrably inadequate to our times (xxx)." 2. God can only be real if it is found within the natural explanations available in the universe (xxviii).

I found the book to be filled with similar assumptions that took for granted a naturalist view of the universe. For example, the Abram's assumes God could never communicate faster than the speed of light and could therefore never know everything. Why? Because she knows of no physical and scientific explanation of how this could be possible.  So, from the beginning everything is assumed, which for me makes a rather droll reading.

Where does her God come from if everything has a naturalistic explanations? Philosophy and life both provide an answer in this case.

Abram's has a background in philosophy (B.A. in the History and Philosophy of Science from University of Chicago) and employs it well to develop a naturalistic theory of God (her capitalization). Emergent properties are those properties of a new entity which are not solely explainable in terms of previously existing properties of constituent agents.  Two of her main examples are ant colonies and economic markets.

An ant colony may described as having emergent properties because the colony does things like move immense amounts of dirt and prioritizes food sources.  No individual ant is doing these tasks, the colony instead is responsible for the.  Second, an economic market has power to act and complexity which no individual participant can understand or control.

I happen to believe emergent properties are real.  Abrams' insufficiently explains emergent properties though.  She also uses some bad examples, our inability to individually understand or control either how all the constituent parts of something like a market work does not mean that it is impossible to do so. An argument from incomprehensibility is not a  very good argument in my view, at least if you are trying to maintain a purely naturalistic explanation of the world.  It reminds me in some ways of Colin McGinn's Mysterianism. In such a view, humans are never going to understand certain things completely, but we must accept them as natural.  As to ant colonies: complexity, synergy, and laws of averages may be sufficient to naturally explain the so-called emergent properties of ant colony. I do not happen to believe an ant colony actually has emergent properties.

In any case, the philosophical idea of a naturalistic God is one that emerges from the collective consciousness of humans.  This God is not omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, or most of the other omnis God is famous for in theology.  I say most because it seems at least possible that this God could be omni-benevolent from Abram's point of view.  This God is consciousness on a large scale and it has all the benefits and rose-tinted outlook you might expect from such a God.

Particularly, this God effectively works to help answer personal prayers of fulfillment and self-worth of the individual as well as spurring as on to good deeds.  This is Abrams' God which brought her through some hard times in life. In this sense, it is a helpful and useful idea. It may even be a true idea purely in terms of its explanatory power of how people who have wrong ideas of God may still benefit from them in this life.

It seems Nancy Ellen Abrams and I agree that certain things in life are valuable like health, common decency, rational thought, and a pursuit of truth.  That at least is a good thing. We even happen to agree that, "There is one magnificent cosmic origin story, and it is equally true for everyone on Earth. To know who we are, we must tell it in every language, every medium, and every generation." We don't happen to agree on what that origin story is though. Fundamentally, her book is the work of a naturalist who wants to act as an evangelist for her God.  Although it includes some rational defense of her belief, it is ultimately and simply the exposition of rational preacher trying to fill hearts and minds with something more.

This is where I believe the book fails. I cannot simply and blindly follow this evangelist's points of conjecture and just believe in faith that this natural world is all there is in existence.  It is a leap of faith I can't take.

I would recommend this book to those who are interested in the intersection of faith, public policy, scientific naturalism, and current social trends in the U.S.  In that sense, I think this book portrays an accurate picture of the world. It is not technical, instead being designed for the lay-person with a college education.

I received my review copy through Library Thing's monthly book giveaways and the generosity of Beacon Press with the assistance of Daniel Barks, Sales Assistant. Thanks to both for my review copy.

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