Posts Tagged ‘God’

Turtles, or terrapins, on a log in a pondToday we visited the beautiful Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, NC, USA, and came across a contented herd of turtles sunning themselves on a log.

The scene brought to mind the amusing “turtles all the way down” anecdote. On the surface, it makes fun of credulity. But I think it also has something to say about the nature of infinity and eternity.

The anecdote, which might be apocryphal, sometimes names Bertrand Russell as the scientist confronted by a determined old lady. But I like John Robert Ross‘s version, which names William James as the scientist:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down!”

(Source: J0hn Robert Ross, Constraints on variables in syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Thesis. 1967.)

Drawing of a hemispherical earth on the backs of four elephants, in turn standing on a turtle's back

This story references a supposed Hindu cosmology that imagined the earth resting on the backs of a group of elephants standing on a tortoise’s back.

“Turtles all the way down” makes me reflect on the idea of infinity. Where does the universe end? It’s turtles all the way out there.

And, while I can imagine living on forever into the future, I have a hard time conceiving of an eternal being that has always existed. When did God begin? It’s turtles all the way back.

ARK — 19 February 2017

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The short answer is no, but he has said some interesting things about who God might be.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku. Credit: Cristiano Sant´Anna/indicefoto.com. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This question came to my attention this past week, when someone pointed me to articles on this topic, including “Top scientist claims proof that God exists, says humans live in a ‘world made by rules created by an intelligence’,” at the website Christian Today.  That article makes the claim:

A respected figure in the scientific community recently said he found evidence proving that there is a Higher Being, which he described as the action of a force “that governs everything.”

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who is known as one of the developers of the revolutionary String Theory, said theoretical particles known as “primitive semi-radius tachyons” may be used to prove the existence of God.

However, nothing on this topic appears on Kaku’s official website, and a search of academic sources reveals nothing written by Kaku referring to “semi-radius tachyons.” According to Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist and textbook author,

Tachyons are theoretical particles. We have no idea whether or not they exist. If they exist, they travel faster than the speed of light, so it’s hard to know how in the world we could ever detect them, much less conduct tests on them. I have no idea how such particles can tell us something about the nature of the universe. I looked in vain for an article on the subject authored by Dr. Kaku himself. I then went to his Facebook page, which made no mention of this “monumental discovery.”

Since I couldn’t find anything written by Dr. Kaku, I decided to investigate these “primitive semi-radius tachyons” myself. I had never heard that term before, but then again, I am not a particle physicist. So today, I tried to find the term in my reference books. I could not. When I did an internet search on the term, the only hits I got were to articles about this supposed discovery. As a result, I seriously doubt that primitive semi-radius tachyons exist, even in the minds of theoretical physicists.

Wile, in fact, discovered that this assertion about Kaku’s “discovery” goes back to at least 2013, when it was apparently circulating on Spanish- and Portuguese-language websites.

So the claims that Michio Kaku has found God seem fabricated, or at least exaggerated. However, I do find that Kaku has made some interesting statements about the possibility of design in the universe. Wile characterizes Kaku as “a theoretical physicist who had done some cutting edge research a couple of decades ago, but is more of a ‘scilebrity’ today, promoting science and his ideas about the future on television shows, etc.” For that reason, it’s possible to find a number of video presentations by him. In some ways, Kaku seems to espouse a belief in the god of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed not in a personal God, but in a god “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,” as Albert Einstein put it.

In a 2013 video program, Kaku said:

The goal of physics, we believe, is to find an equation perhaps no more than one inch long, which will allow us to unify all the forces of nature and allow us to read the mind of God.

And what is the key to that one-inch equation? Super-symmetry. A symmetry that comes out of physics, not mathematics, and has shocked the world of mathematics.

But you see, all this is pure mathematics, and so the final resolution could be that God is a mathematician. And when you read the mind of God, we actually have a candidate for the mind of God. The mind of God, we believe, is cosmic music, the music of strings resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photo by Orren Jack Turner.

And in a 2011 interview, he more specifically referenced Einstein and Spinoza:

Einstein was asked the big question, Is there a God? Is there a meaning to everything, right? And here’s how Einstein answered the question. He said there really are two kinds of gods. We have to be very scientific. We have to define what we mean by God. If God is the God of intervention, a personal God, a god of prayer, the God who parts the waters, then he had a hard time believing in that. Would God listen to all our prayers, for a bicycle for Christmas? Smite the Philistines for me, please.

He didn’t think so. However, he believed in the God of order, harmony, beauty, simplicity, and elegance, the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that he believed in, because he thought the universe was so gorgeous. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been chaotic. It could have been ugly, messy. But here we have the fact that all the equations of physics can be placed on a simple sheet of paper. Einstein’s equation is only one inch long. And the quantum theory is about a yard long, but you can squeeze it onto a sheet of paper…

… And with string theory, you can even put those two equations together, and string theory can be squeezed into an equation one inch long. And that equation, but the way, is my equation. That’s String Field Theory. That’s my contribution.

But we want to know, where did that equation come from, you know. This is what Einstein asked. Did God have a choice? Was there any choice in building a universe? When he woke up in the morning, he would say, “I want to create a universe. I want to be God today. What kind of universe would I create?” This is how he created much of his theory.

So, Kaku doesn’t really claim to have proven the existence of God through physics. However, he does acknowledge that the physical universe implies that there is something more going on than just a big random mess.

ARK — 19 June 2016




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One of the tasks of a fiction writer is to decide what to name his or her characters. I’ve had to think carefully about how to handle that in the Edhai historical-fiction series I’m working on.

The series begins in the time before the Biblical Deluge and thus in a period when all the world spoke a single language. In more recent times — meaning the past few thousand years — people have been shorter-lived, so languages have been more apt to change. But in the pre-flood period, people lived much longer — Adam for 930 years, Seth for 912 years, Enosh for 905 years, and so on (see Gen 5:3-11). Given such longer lifetimes and the overlap among generations, I surmise that there would have been more stability in language. It would have changed less.

Even after the Flood, humans lived for a relatively long period of time, Noah living to 950 years and his son Shem to 600 years (see Gen 9:29 and 11:10, 11). This would likely also contribute to linguistic stability until the confusion of human languages at Babel sometime between 2269 and 2030 BCE during the lifetime of Peleg (Gen 10:25, 11:1-9).

What I’m getting at here is that for the first couple of thousand years of human existence all humans would likely have spoken the same language — Hebrew or something like it — and might never even have conceived of the idea of a foreign tongue. This would affect all names of humans and places, which would have been based on words and their meanings, rather than just on family traditions or the sound of the name — ‘my grandfather’s name was Robert, let’s name the baby after him’ or ‘I like the way “Chelsea” sounds.’


The Tetragrammaton as it appears on a church window in Decorah, Iowa. via Wikimedia.

So in The Cursed Ground, the initial novel in the series, I’m choosing names with real English meanings. For example, the two main characters are named Boon and Temper. The story doesn’t deal much with historical characters like Noah and Lamech, but even when they are mentioned, I try to employ English equivalents, such as Soothe and Plainspeaker.

This is an interesting problem, but not as easily solved as you might think. Not all English words really sound that great if you try to use them as proper names — calling someone “Smart” or “Friendly” or “Robust” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

What to call the true God presented an especial challenge when I was trying to decide how the characters would refer to him in the story. Ancient people who knew the name of God would have pronounced it in their own language, using something like “Yehewah” or “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” But in the story, I wanted to have the characters speaking of God with consciousness of the meaning of his name.

The name JHVH or YHWH (a.k.a., the Tetragrammaton) in Hebrew expresses the causative form and imperfect state of the verb ha-wah’, or “become.” The divine name, then, basically means “He Causes to Become,” in that Jehovah causes himself to become whatever he wishes in order to fulfill his purposes. Thus I decided that in The Cursed Ground and in the sequels to follow, the characters who know this God would refer to him as “He Who Causes to Become,” or, more often “the Becomer.”

Anyhow, I thought I would share my thought process leading to the way names are devised in the Edhai series, in case this might be of interest to readers.

ARK — 22 October 2014



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Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently published “Seven Tools for Thinking” in The Guardian. An excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett’s seven tools make up a useful set of guidelines for some aspects of rhetorical arguments.

However, I was particularly struck by a seeming irony that shows up between tool number 4 (“Answer Rhetorical Questions”) and tool number 5 (“Employ Occam’s Razor”). In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.” Having in the previous section been sensitized to rhetorical questions, I find myself reflecting on Dennett’s linking of the four key words: postulate, supernatural, incomprehensible, parsimonious. What does his selection of these words indicate about his thinking, his biases, his rhetorical purpose, and the weakness of the argument implied in his question?

In his section on rhetorical questions, Dennett makes a useful suggestion:

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.

I like that idea. If I were to answer the rhetorical question, “How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?,” how would I do so? An interesting exercise.

One answer might be to focus on the weakness inherent in that question, the assumption that a supernatural being is incomprehensible.

Another answer might be that evoking God as as creator of the universe is parsimonious if it happens to be true.

In any case, hats off to Dr. Dennett for putting together a thought-provoking set of rhetorical guidelines.

ARK — 24 May 2014

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Sometimes you hear people say that God created other beings because he was lonely, but that makes little sense. Today I ran across a comment about 1 John 4:8, which says that “God is love.” In other words, that is his main quality, the essence of his being. The comment I read was, “Jehovah became the Creator as an expression of his endearing quality of love.” That makes more sense. The thought that comes to me, then, is that God created the universe and other intelligent creatures out of his love for everything and everyone that could come to exist.

ARK — 20 Nov. 2012


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I was reflecting on Pascal’s Wager about God, which as  I understand it goes something like this:

If you believe in God and it turns out that there really is a God, you win because when you die you get an eternal reward.

If you don’t believe in God and it turns out there really is a God, you lose because when you die you get an eternal punishment.

If you believe in God and it turns out there really is no God, you lose, but the worse that happens is you waste time when you are alive and when you die you are just dead forever.

There’s a lot to say about this whole chain of reasoning, but my basic thought is that it would be foolish to think simply believing in God is enough to get the eternal reward in any case. Accepting Pascal’s reasoning in a simplistic way could lead you to just throw in your lot with the first religion that comes your way — you could end up wasting your time while you are alive and then be dead forever anyway. It’s certainly worth investigating whether there really is a God and then making a diligent search and a reason-based investigation to find out who that God is and what he expects of us — that information is available.

ARK — 22 April 2011

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Ad in Biblical Archaeology Review for HCSBI was impressed recently to see the ad shown to the right from Biblical Archaeology Review for May/June of 2010. In an age where most churchgoers effectively don’t even know the name of the God they profess to worship, it is impressive that translators would have the courage to include the name of the Bible’s divine Author in its text.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is published by B&H Publishing Group, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources. The organization has an earlier version of the HCSB available for free at MyStudyBible.com. This online version has some great study features. If you hover over key words in the text, you get a rollover displaying things like the word and pronunciation in the original language, definition, and information about how the HCSB renders that word in English throughout the text.

On playing around with the online version, one thing I noticed immediately was that in Gen. 2:4, the first place where the Tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH) appears in the Hebrew text, the HCSB disappointingly renders it “LORD,” as you would find in the King James version and its many derivatives. Hovering over “LORD” in that verse reveals that the online HCSB translates the name of God as a real name only 484 times, whereas it use the title “LORD” 5,925 times and “God” twice.

Online version of HCSB showing study features

So the HCSB translators know how the original text reads, but they made a conscious decision to stick to the practice of post-Biblical Judaism and Christendom of using a euphemism most of the time and including God’s name fewer than 8 percent of the 6,413 times it appears in the Hebrew scriptures.

This was surprisingly to me, especially in light of the strong message conveyed in the Biblical Archaeology Review ad. So I sent a feedback message on the MyStudyBible Web site asking for their reasoning. I was happy to receive a very nice message from E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor and one of the HCSB translators.

Ray tells me that the online version of the translation is an older one and that the newer version of the translation uses Yahweh over 600 times and that the translation team intends to increase the divine Name’s usage more over time.

Ray says the team used the following guidelines for rendering the Tetragrammaton as Yahweh:

We use it as the rendering of YHWH (which the Hebrew Bible editors first rendered as Adonai, “Lord”) whenever God’s “name” is being given (either explicitly, using the word “name,” or implicitly), when He is being identified (“I am Yahweh”), when He is being contrasted to other gods such as Baal, in certain repeated phrases such as “Yahweh the God of your fathers,” or when YHWH has been rendered by Yahweh in the immediate context.

He admits that the translators have probably been inconsistent in some cases, but provides an interesting insight into why they thought it wiser to continue the practice of substituting “LORD” most of the time:

… our objective is to introduce to the contemporary church what is the most likely pronunciation of the divine name YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. We did not render the majority of occurrences of YHWH as Yahweh because our goal is not only to be accurate but to use an English style that is most familiar to people. Since most Christians today probably do not commonly speak of “Yahweh,” but rather of “the Lord,” we felt it would be insensitive to use Yahweh for YHWH in every case and would make the Bible seem too uncomfortable for most people.

I thought this was a frank and humble admission from someone with extensive credentials as a Biblical scholar, acknowledging the limitations of this fellow believers. He tells me that “We hope that the name will grow on people and that we can expand the uses of Yahweh in future editions.”

At the same time, there is something sad about this confession — that eminent Bible translators feel that they have to hold back the truth because their readers would feel uncomfortable with the name of the true God.

[Update from 16 August 2014:] This engaging video was just released, presenting some good reasoning why the name of God should be included in the Bible: http://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/good-news-from-god/who-is-god/video-gods-name/

ARK — 23 Nov. 2010

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