A Philosophical Shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day
How a materialist agnostic with a firm commitment to science came to find God.
St. Patrick is famous for using a Shamrock to explain the Catholic notion of “The Trinity” to the people of Ireland. “God is three persons,” he explained, “but still one God” — using the three-leafed symbol of Ireland as an example.
My middle name is Patrick, so today has always been special for me. As with many names, there’s a story behind mine.
My father grew up in a Catholic family, but declared himself an atheist as a young adult. He was a scientist, he said, and he had no need for the God hypothesis.
My grandfather implored him to try going to church one more time. Ever the scientist, my dad decided to make it an experiment. He went and sang the songs with enthusiasm. He tried to make the experience everything he could — and he felt something. He was moved by the experience and joined the church again, as an adult this time. Not because his father asked him to, but because he experimented with reality and found a hypothesis that best fit all of the experiences he had.
Dad met Mom in church at Stanford — he was studying Physics, she was studying classics. If he hadn’t had the experience he’d had — if he hadn’t adopted the God Hypothesis — he never would have met her, and I wouldn’t exist.
I exist because of the idea of God. Regardless of whether that idea points to something in reality, the idea of God has heavily shaped reality to a significant degree.
Mom and Dad raised me with this idea of God, and I believed in it strongly because it made sense to me — until I started learning mathematics and philosophy, and asking myself all kinds of questions. The idea of God stopped making sense. Paradoxes popped up all over the place, and when your assumptions lead you to a paradox, you know you’ve got an invalid assumption.
I rejected God the way I rejected “a pair of integers expressing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.”
It doesn’t exist; it can’t exist, because pi is not a rational number. It can’t be a rational number, because the very idea contradicts itself. The proof of this fact is a little complicated, but each step is simple, and follows logically from the previous steps.
The idea of “pi as a rational number” exists, but the idea doesn’t point to anything; it’s an empty idea, an invalid one — one that isn’t part of the Truth. I put “God” into that same category — an idea which is false.
“God is Truth,” My mom told me over and over again. I told her once that the notion of Truth was broken, because truth was always relative. Science proved it, I told her, and explained that even a claim like “the Earth goes around the Sun” can be true, as long as you construct the appropriate internal frame. Mom didn’t like that.
I agree with Mom now — God is the Truth — and so here we come to the shamrock. What is the Truth? I believe the Truth has three parts. I think these three parts roughly correspond to the three parts of the catholic trinity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When I was younger, I thought Truth only had two parts, which is why I figured that “Truth” was a broken concept. I was missing an important aspect of the Truth — and not only was I missing out on God, I was a miserable person missing out on a huge aspect of the world.
I didn’t understand the importance of People. That was the problem all along.
The first aspect of the Truth is “truth by definition.”
A bachelor is an unmarried man. Therefore, all bachelors are unmarried men. The second sentence is true because of the way “bachelor” is defined. These truths are called “analytical truths” by some philosophers — and I often think of them as Mathematical truths. The whole thing about “Pi can’t be a ratio of two integers” — that’s a definition thing. The “clear logical steps” taking you from the definition of Pi, to the impossibility of it being a ratio of two integers — those are just definitions being applied over and over again. That’s all mathematics is — repeatedly applying the same definitions.
It’s amazing how far you can get by just applying the same fixed definitions. There’s an entire world of beauty you can explore in mathematics. I studied Math in college, and I loved it for that reason.
The second aspect of the Truth is “truth by experience.”
Water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit under standard atmospheric pressure. That’s true, right?
There’s nothing in the definition of water that tells you it will freeze that way. You can do an experiment — you can go out and have the experience for yourself, and see that it’s true.
I studied physics in college, and I loved it because I could see for myself how all of these complex things worked. “Why is the sky blue?” — well damn, that’s a very deep question. I didn’t have to trust anyone else. I didn’t have to take anyone’s words for truth — I could see with my own eyes how these theories actually worked in reality. I call these kinds of truth “empirical truth” because they come from empirical observation.
These first two aspects of the truth were the only two that I accepted.
They seemed to fit together quite nicely. Science, I told myself, is the process of generating mathematical models of reality — sets of definitions — and then throwing out the models that didn’t match our experience. A wonderful synthesis of the first and second modes of truth.
Without realizing it, I had firmly latched on to the “Logical Positivist” way of thinking about the world. I had no idea what “logical positivism” was, because I had no interest in understanding philosophical arguments I disagreed with. I took a philosophy class in college, and did poorly because I didn’t care about the difference between Descartes and Kant. They were both wrong.
What’s the benefit in understanding different ways of looking at the world that are wrong?
A problem with this viewpoint — that mathematical models can be chosen arbitrarily, and some of them happen to make accurate predictions — is that the world is meaningless, empty, and quite frankly, terrifying. “Other people have their own internal experiences” cannot be empirically distinguished from “Other people are all mindless robots.” There’s no experiment you could do to separate one hypothesis from the other, and so according to the mindset I had — the claim “Other people have internal experiences” is meaningless.
Here we come to the final part of the truth — the part I was missing: other people.
The third part of Truth is “truth by collective belief.”
Lots of people believing something doesn’t make it true — of course I know that. The thing is — the first two forms of truth also have their own flaws which can lead us to believe things that aren’t True in the metaphysical sense we intuitively mean.
Definitions can be arbitrarily chosen — there is no real Truth there. You could just define “pi” to be 3, and call it a day, if you wanted. Of course, this definitions causes contradictions, but it’s nothing you can’t fix by adding even MORE definitions.
Experience can be confusing, misleading, or mistaken — no real Truth there, either. Your eyes might deceive you, you might misread your instruments, or you might just hallucinate for an evening and think it was real. A mathematical framework might be accurate at making predictions, but that could simply be a bit of luck.
People can be wrong, or believe in something that makes them feel better — There are plenty of instances when lots of people have believed something that turned out to be false. No real Truth there, either.
But what happens when all three converge?
What happens when lots of people use the same set of definitions which accurately predict their experience? Now we’re getting somewhere.
The scientific method depends upon people communicating and discussing their results. That’s the whole point of the Peer Review process. It isn’t just some thing bolted on the end — discussion and collaboration are essential in the scientific method. They are just as critical as observation, hypothesis, and experimentation.
Other people are repositories of experience. If you think about it, you probably don’t believe in global climate change because you’ve done the experiments yourself. I know I haven’t.
If you believe that global climate change is real, chances are that you believe this because people you trust have told you their experiences. Those experiences match up with your experiences and the models you use to understand reality. It’s very unlikely that you’ve dug through the analysis and experiments yourself. Your belief in global warming is, ultimately, a belief based upon trust of other people and trust in the integrity of the shared model we call “Science.”
It’s not just “synthesis between models and experience” that make us think something is true — it’s also the understanding that “other people have used the same model and gotten the same experiences.”
The last part is crucial.
So what does this have to do with the Trinity?
The trinity ostensibly has three parts: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I think God the father is truth by definition — the mathematical structure of our reality cannot be denied. I don’t think God the father is some person sitting up in heaven, being like “hey, so don’t do XYZ because I don’t want that” — God the father is the fact that there is a patterned structure to reality. It’s that there is truth at all.
When I focus on what is true, I have to face the fact that I exist because of my parents, and because of their parents and their parents all made choices for me without even knowing I’d exist. They worked hard to provide from their offspring in the hopes that they’d have a better life.
When I focus on what is true, I cannot deny that every living thing on earth is a relative of mine. I cannot deny that every homeless person is my cousin, and so is every tycoon, king, or president. We are all related, in the truest sense of the word.
I think God the Son is social truth — the fact that other people and their experiences are an extremely important part of the truth.
When I was younger — most likely because I have autism — I found other people confusing, unpredictable black boxes. I didn’t get them. Once I started thinking about other people — their thoughts, their experiences — it was like a whole new part of the world opened up.
God the Son, to Catholics, would be Jesus. An objection I often had to the truth of Jesus was that you can’t derive Jesus from Hydrogen and time. Everything else in physics that is true can be derived to be true from the simple definitions present in physical models.
There’s no experiment I can do to test whether Jesus exists, and it’s not a definitional thing. I believe he existed because people i trust have told me he did, that there is evidence for him and his impact on history — the same reason I believe global climate change exists.
Believing in social truth means I try to understand people even when I don’t agree with them. It means I try to think about other people’s experiences and not just my own.
I am so much happier than I was, as a result of this new concept. If you are unhappy, it’s amazing how quickly thinking from someone else’s perspective pulls you out of it.
I think the holy spirit is empirical truth — the fact that my daily experiences are part of a large, connected truth can be overwhelming at times. Just something as simple as washing a dish can feel so gratifying, when I focus on the experience of doing that instead of being distracted by my thoughts.
The holy spirit is often described as “The spirit of truth”, or a guiding voice that helps people navigate their daily lives. John, 13:16 says:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come
That sounds very close to the idea of experiencing the world, and making predictions about future experiences — the core of science. The truth.
Paying attention, on a daily basis, to the little things that happen, with an open mind — it makes a world of difference. The attitude of the scientist is to observe without expectation — to watch, and to note, but not to judge. That’s the same mindset described as “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen Buddhism.
Speaking of Buddhism, the same ‘trinity’ concept shows up, as ‘The Three Jewels’ (from Wikipedia):
…Buddha nature — the ideal or highest spiritual potential that exists within all beings.
The teachings of the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment.
“ The community of those who have attained enlightenment, who may help a practicing Buddhist to do the same.”
There isn’t a perfect match here — but there’s a rough analog: The Dharma would be analytical truth; teachings, models. The Sangha would be social truth — others along the way. The Buddha itself would be empirical truth.
This is the weakest link here, but it does seem to be an argument that Buddha nature resides in everything, just as a single electron reflects the wave structure of all electrons in the universe.
What I mean when I say I believe in “God” is very different from what most folks believe — but the end result here is that I now believe the universe has meaning, I think there is a strength and power in love, and I am optimistic about the future.
All of these beliefs are new, within the past few years — and a direct result of spending more time thinking about people — specifically, other people who are not me.
It’s amazing how much happier you can be when you don’t focus on yourself.
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