Questions and attempts at answers

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The nature of existence

The filmmaker Roger Nygard produces The Nature of Existence, a series of reports in which he asks about the meaning of existence, morals or life.


Unconfirmed rumors are circulating according to which there is some being, called God, which has created the universe. The style manual in the Spanish newspaper El País says rumors are not news. Therefore, there’s nothing to say about God’s alleged existence. However, it is a fact that millions of people believe in his existence. A belief is an opinion that may have facts as its basis, but it’s not a fact. Science, like journalism, deals with facts. Neither science nor journalism deal with God’s existence because they can’t confirm it. Can they deny it? Propositions in science, as in journalism, are relevant if they are affirmative. A negative statement doesn’t have to be proved. If somebody located in the old Europe denied the existence of America he could be labeled as an individual whose means of getting information are quite lacking, but it would be absurd to ask him to prove his negative statement. Therefore, regarding God’s existence, the responsibility of the proof lies with the ones who state it, not with the ones who deny it. In fact, Catholics claim faith is a theological virtue, which means it is a virtue given to believers by God. Those to whom he doesn’t give it to will never have it. Unless, as one of the so-called doctors of that same Catholic church, they want to believe. Indeed, when Augustine of Hippo was asked for explanations about faith, he answered “if you don’t believe, you will not understand.” Therefore, non-believers are unable to understand God. The thing is that, while believers remain in the realm of opinion without stating it as a real fact, there’s no need to say anything to them. One believes what one wants to believe and, frequently, later builds the arguments to justify that belief. In what follows we will speak about the difference between beliefs and statements about facts. Some people confuse them, but they are not the same.

The North-American filmmaker Roger Nygard (born in 1962) has just produced a series of seven DVDs titled generically The Nature of Existence in which he starts from his on doubts -most of them shared by a great fraction of humankind- to ask several people and try to solve them. His doubts deal with existence, with life and its meaning, with religion and the existence or not of the spiritual substance, about good and evil, truth and faith, sin, free will, morality or the hypothetical life after death.

It’s a good job which has taken him four years and which has yielded a very good result. From the making point of view, the reports are easy to watch, the pace is good and the characters he has chosen are greatly diverse and, in many cases, ideal. Those who turn to them won’t be disappointed. There are philosophers, such as Richard Schlagel (George Washington University); psychologists such as Michael E. Nielsen or David Wulff (who has written several texts on psychology of religion); biologists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion; physicists such as Sylvester James Gates JR. and Joel R. Primack; David Spergel; Leonard Susskind or Stanford Woosley. People who, in general, talk about facts, or express opinions based on more or less testable facts. As testable as science allows.

Of course, not everything they say has an epistemological status. Thus, when Leonard Susskind talks about physics, he does so backed up by his research, string theory amongst others. But when he states that the best things in life are sex and chocolate, things are different. That is a perfectly debatable statement, since it is just an opinion. An anchorite could claim the opposite and nothing can be done but agreeing with both their individual views.

Precisely for the same reasons the work of Nygard, even though good and entertaining, suffers from equating facts and opinions. Opinions from different people whose discourse is, in the best of cases, gratuitous. From priests of several religions to people who seem closer to farce than to reflection. Which draws nothing from the fact that it’s enjoyable to know about a church which promotes an interpretation of Christianity through wrestling; or that there are still druids and archdruids apart from gurus who specialize as “transpersonal agents.” The Baba (who claims to be the reincarnation of a Hind God) followers, who claim he has magical powers though he doesn’t show them, are also interesting. And the histrionic contribution of Brother Jed Smock, who defines himself as a “confrontational evangelist” is not to be missed. Of course, he confronts the others, but there’s no way to confront his own statements, based on the free interpretation of the Bible.

The Nature of Existence is, as we have said, a good job which leads to reflection on knowledge and its history. Knowledge in the hard sense, that is, testable statements about facts. It’s not about arguing whether Shakespeare’s (or any other artist’s) description of feelings is more or less profound than that of psychologists. That concerns two different levels of language and it’s difficult for a reader to confuse Hamlet with the Pyschopathology of the everyday life. Nygard does well presenting the questions inside a totum revolutum, because that’s how they have been presented through history and that’s how they have reached our time. But the work of the scientist consists of separating testable hypothesis from ethereal ones. And the defenders of thesis which cannot be sustained without faith want exactly the opposite. For example, the creationists, who claim their propositions are equatable to those of evolutionism. It is absolutely not the case. Biologists talk about testable facts, they make statements about the past which they back up with scientific proofs and they predict certain facts which can be confirmed or falsified by anyone. None of that seems to hinder the creationists who, on top of that, have to deny the evidence of geological and biological proofs to sustain their opinion that the world was created some 4,000 years ago.

The confrontation between opinions based on faith (or formulated in order to justify faith) and scientific propositions is not new. In fact, the progress of knowledge happens only to the extent that one starts doing without the gods to explain the world or part of it. Galileo expelled God from astronomy and with him modern physics was born. Darwin expelled God from biology, to the dismay of creationists of all kinds. Marx expelled God from history and Freud did without him to explain the human soul. Here I deliberately omit a deeper discussion on the notion of soul as a separate element from the body because it is evident that I’m not using the word in that sense. And, even more impressively, Kant had no problems to come up with a moral which strove for universality, without the need of God.

The birth of Philosophy itself in classical Greece has to do with the possibility of explaining the world without the need for gods. Anybody can see there are many similarities between the myths which explain the origin of the world. In almost all of them, some force (more or less divine) proceeds to order the world. But that notion of order is not formulated in the same way in every language. For example, in Mesopotamia, the world is born after the confrontation between Marduk and Thiamat, in which the former wins and separates his enemy in two parts (earth and sky) leaving the air in between. Hesiod, the Greek poet, explains something similar, but when Zeus defeats Jaos (a name which is related both to chaos and gas) establishes cosmos. Cosmos is a Greek word which means at the same time universe and order, so Hesiod paves the way for philosophy and science (that is, rational and testable knowledge), which the Bible doesn’t do, since in it God just separates earth and water, but does not establish an order. If the gods established a regular world, it is enough to observe it in order to understand its laws. If God created the world and keeps intervening, experience is not enough: only he know what it is like. Therefore, from the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity, Islamism) research about the universe consists of reading that book, since truth is revealed by God. In exchange for that limitation, that truth has some fantastic characteristics, as can be seen in the priests who explain it in Nygard’s reports: it is an unchanging, universal, eternal truth. In front of it, the truths from science are second class truths: they are constantly subject to revision by the same scientists who formulate them.

Certainly, if God existed he would be a great intellectual shelter. But science doesn’t need it. And the world doesn’t seem to either.

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