Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God-Blob: The Higher-Power Dilemma

In recent years, an enormous number of my students have been claiming to believe in a Higher Power and affirm that they are spiritual, but not religious.  Here I share some thoughts on the object of their belief.

‘Power’ is the ability to do work, or possession of control or command over others.  It can mean authority or ascendency.

‘Higher’ is a comparative, and as such is a relation.  Relations require at least two relata (things about which the relation is to hold). 

Let H stand for, ‘A Higher Power exists.’

Most people who assert H mean to distinguish it clearly from the following:

G:  God exists.

The first thing to notice is that since ‘higher’ is a comparative, H is really incomplete, and so the question arises, “Higher than what?”  It would be like saying, “Mike is taller.”  Taller than he was in the past?  Taller than you?  We need more information.

Let’s take the relata of ‘higher’ to be the power in question, on the one hand, and humans on the other.  This is what I believe most people mean when they affirm H.  Then we are affirming:

H2:  A power higher than humans exists.

If ‘power’ is used in the sense of ‘the ability to do work,’ then we are saying that an ability to do work higher than humans exists. 

This is ambiguous.  It could mean:

H2A:  An ability to do work exists that is higher than any human ability to do work.

Or it could mean:

H2B:  An ability to do work exists that is higher than human beings are.

H2A is a meaningful sentence, but is trivially true.  No one disputes it.  H2B, on the other hand, isn’t true (and it isn’t false, either) because it possesses no clear meaning.  There is no clear sense of ‘higher’ that makes sense of saying that an ability is higher than a human being.  It would be much like saying that yellow is taller than Bob.

The dilemma:  If H2 is what is meant by ‘a Higher Power exists,’ then ‘a Higher Power exists’ is either trivially true or meaningless.

Sometimes by ‘power’ people mean to say ‘energy.’  Energy is the exertion of power.  Then we are saying that an exertion of power higher than humans exists.  Again, if this makes sense, then it is trivially true.  Everyone, without exception, already believes that there are powers in existence greater than any powers that humans can exert.  Indeed, there is nothing at all incompatible between this claim and a thorough-going and consistent atheism.  And, similar to the above, if one cannot properly compare an exertion of power to a human being in terms of higher and lower, then it is meaningless.

If ‘power’ means ‘possession of command over others’ or ‘authority,’ then we have:

H3:  An Authority exists that is higher than human beings.


H3A:  An Authority exists that is higher than any authority that humans possess.

H3B:  An Authority exists that is higher than any human.

H3A is meaningful and not at all trivially true.  It is therefore a significant claim; however, if H3A is true, what is to prevent a person from simply affirming G?  Maybe he is averse to monotheism.  One could affirm instead:

G2:  God exists or Gods exist.

That would avoid the problem.  Certainly most, although not all, who affirm H do not wish to affirm G2.

H3B is meaningless for the same reason that H2B is.

So here is the dilemma:  If one takes ‘Higher Power’ to mean ‘an Authority higher than humans,’ then the statement will lead either to some form of theism, or it will be meaningless.

And now, my ultimate conclusion:

When someone affirms that a Higher Power exists, that person is doing one of the following three things:  
1)       He is affirming a triviality.
2)      He is actually affirming some form of theism.
3)      He is saying something meaningless.

My suggestion:  If you are truly committed to the existence of a Higher Power then, in order to avoid triviality and meaninglessness, affirm some form of theism.   There is a variety of theisms out there, including monotheism, deism, polytheism, and so on.  That is your next adventure.  On the other hand, you could stop affirming that there is a Higher Power and adopt a form of atheism.  I am of the opinion that you will have to make some kind of a decision here, because without some form of commitment, you are left in an intellectually untenable position.

What motivates this Higher Power movement?  I believe that it represents a reluctance to make a commitment.  Many people are horrified to commit to the existence of a God for whatever reasons.  They are also horrified to commit to the idea that there is no God.  Both theism and atheism scare them, yet they don’t adopt agnosticism, either.  The Higher Power allows people to appear as if they are making a commitment without their having to make an actual commitment that subjects them to intellectual criticism, since no one knows exactly what they are affirming in any case.  The benefit of this strategy is either that you will always be right, or that you will never be wrong.  The cost of this strategy is either that you will be affirming a triviality, or that you will be affirming something that is meaningless. 
The picture that has developed in my mind over the years of talking to people about this Higher Power is that of what I call the “God-blob.”  The God-blob is kind of like a smiling, fluffy cloud.  It doesn’t judge people.  It just loves people.  It never criticizes anybody.  It feels really good, and likes to make us feel really good.   And then we die, and then we just enter its happy fluffiness like the teddy bear jumping into a pile of dryer sheets.

Our ideas should not be unnecessarily fluffy.  They should be as clear as possible.  This is why I am intellectually dissatisfied with merely ‘a Higher Power exists.’

My solution:  Affirm God’s existence.  The Supreme Being exists, and is not a God-blob.  Worship God and adopt both a spiritual AND a religious attitude toward our Creator.

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