The concept of God was invented to account for the existence of complex sentient life, specifically human life.
So high is our opinion of ourselves that the only explanation for our existence many millions remain prepared to accept is that we are the privileged creation of a super-being, made in his immaculate image.
But if we are prepared to accept the truth about life, that it evolves mechanistically from the laws of physics and chemistry, life itself ceases to be mysterious. The mystery that remains is existence.
It's tempting to think of existence as a 'thing in the world', like life, demanding of its own explanation, and perhaps as an opening to slip God back in.
But, as in Anthony Flew's garden analogy outlined in my previous post, this is only because we have already invented him, for a need he no longer serves.
If we all knew about Darwinism from the moment of our inception, and were confronted only with the mystery of planets floating in space, would we then have created so implausible an entity as a personality outside of space and time, pulling the strings, to account for them?
With the great question - the meaning of life - reduced, basically, to the meaning of rocks, cannot we come up with a less extravagant hypothesis?
Instinctively, we might tend to say that the mystery of existence per se is at least as great as the mystery of life, and just as demanding of a big, splashy explanation.
Hence the most popular reformulation of the old question: not ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’
This is a question that by its own lights remains permanently beyond logical conclusion, and thus feels mysterious in exactly the kind of way that the fact of life once felt mysterious, and therefore big enough to allow room for a God hypothesis.
Scientists tend to despair when they hear it because to them it is a kind of semantic magic trick with no meaning: it is a question that can only possibly make sense to a thinking organism, thus can only be asked in a world of something. Their answer, then, is: because if there were nothing, there would nothing to ask the question and nothing to ask it of. Existence is not a thing in the world; it cannot be contrasted with something else; it has no 'opposite'.
Certainly, non-existence is not a valid concept - it is simply nothing. So first we must be sure what we mean by nothing.
'Nothing' is not the absence of things, still less is it empty space, which is very much something. Neither is it a kind of blankness, or blackness - only material space is empty; only things have colour. It is literally and totally nothing; it is the absence of anything at all, even the possibility of anything, even the possibility of the idea of anything.
It is an impossible state of affairs, because it is not a state of affairs. It cannot be envisaged, or usefully talked of. It has no shape, no past or future, no purpose, surely no meaning. It is simply nothing at all.
And that’s a pretty big concept. It frustrates us by the effort of articulating it; as a concept it defies formulation; it seems to run away whenever we approach it; it is like water, constantly slipping through our fingers.
True nothingness brings us to the brink of human comprehension.
It is a paradox rather like the riddle of space. Since the concept of infinite space and the concept of bounded space seem equally absurd, the question ‘what lies outside of the universe, and outside of that, and of that?’ is one that leaves us with the feeling of having run into a mental wall, as if our thoughts were actually pushing at the outer membrane of our brains.
Logically, space that ends and space that does not are equally impossible. But one or the other must be the case, so it follows that the problem is one we have conjured ourselves, a fact about our brains rather than the world (and one that seems to provide ironic evidence of the existence of a world outside of human comprehension).
Schopenhauer wrote that every man mistakes the limits of his vision for the limits of the world; this is equally true of mankind collectively: Plato's cave is scientific fact. Our perception of just about everything runs contrary to scientific explication: we don't see the world accurately, we see it effectively. This in itself is proof of the Darwinian process, and strong evidence against any notions of humans occupying any kind of central or privileged position in what we might still wish ironically to call 'the universal scheme'.
We see the world the way we can see it, which is the way that it is most useful for us to see it, which is almost certainly not the way it is. (This suggests in fact that there is no single privileged 'way it is', only an infinite possibility of ways it might be perceived, and therefore comes very close to being a scientific proof of Kantian idealism.)
Similarly, it is virtually impossible to think of nothing as anything other than a lump of nothing, as nothing in something.
Actual, complete and total nothing is too outside of our experience to be fully accepted by brains that, after all, only evolved to comprehend a limited number of comparatively simple survival options.
At a first glance the fact that we see existence as an unanswerable mystery would seem to give succour to the atheist and the believer equally.
Mysteries are inevitable, just as almost everything is mysterious to a computer or a cow, and mysterious answers are not necessary, even if the actual answers lie forever outside our reach.
On the other hand, there are no grounds for ruling them out either: if the truth is as fundamentally unknowable as the choice between two concepts equally impossible to logic, then the God hypothesis is both no more reasonable than literally anything else you care to invent, and no less reasonable.
This, at least, is arguable here, at the very threshold of existence itself, in a way that it is not, really, at any other point where ultimate questions have been felt necessary, such as the long-ago concluded 'mystery (meaning) of life'.
But ultimately, it still runs aground on the falsely physical status we accord existence as a concept.
What the theist overlooks is that the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' makes just as much – or little – sense in reverse. To the extent that it is valid, it would be equally valid for us to posit the non-existence of anything and ask then ‘why is there nothing rather than something?’
The absurdity - and impossibility - of any such question instantly reveals the flaw in the argument when presented as it is more usually - and instinctively - formulated.
The difference between something and nothing is so fundamental that there is really no logical or existential relationship between them at all. There is a close (and misleading) linguistic connection between the two words, but the concepts, though superficially opposite, are utterly different, and incomparable as states.
There just either is, or there isn’t.
So to say that if there is, then a special explanation involving a supernatural being is called for simply makes no sense.
God can exist within a concept of things existing, but even he can’t exist outside of a state of nothingness, because as soon as you put him there you have something. There either is – with God in it or not - or there isn’t. You can’t go outside of nothing, and you can’t go before it. It’s nothing.
Any speculation on the matter reduces ultimately either to speculation as to the idiosyncrasies of language, or the computing capabilities and limits of the human brain. And it wouldn’t be the first time that either was mistaken for external reality.
As for the God hypothesis, perhaps one of the best reasons for rejecting it, paradoxically, is precisely that it does not give us that feeling of butting the insides of our skulls that the thought of infinite space or absolute nothingness do. It makes for a suspiciously comprehensible kind of ultimate answer. It feels small, unimaginative, a fudging of the big questions - as a concept it seems to have human fingerprints on it.