I recently read Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Nonmoral Nature." Now, Gould is one of my favorite science writers, so I was interested in his conclusion as well as his observations on nature. What can it tell us about the God who made it? His conclusion was that we cannot derive from nature any indication about the moral character of God. His observations were all related to the pain and suffering that is fundamental to the natural world and which would be, if one chose to make the case, evidence for a immoral God. Gould does not make that case, however. His final position was that nature just is. To consider the death and pain evident in the natural world in an anthropomorphic way is to read into nature something that is not there. It just is.
Others who have written about the essay, however, have derived more from the same evidence Gould presents. Their conclusions are that God, if there be such, is not moral. Indeed he is immoral by the standards of morality of the authors. So if God created nature and nature is vicious, would not this God be vicious also?
I lean toward Gould's position rather than the latter, but I would like to suggest that there is more we can derive about God than Gould allows. (To be fair, Gould's argument has to do with the somewhat common attempt to derive the goodness of God from nature and, at that, only a small slice of nature. It is a limited argument.)
I begin with the observation that the universe had a cause and that cause is possibly if not probably the being we call God. First, the cause had to be able to produce the universe. That would require great power or authority. Even if the cause of the universe was an impersonal quantum or energy fluctuation in a prior universe, the cause would have to be powerful. It would have to be on the scale of the Big Bang itself.
Next, we observe that this earth of ours is a remarkable place. The conditions that obtain here are not only many and interrelated but necessary in almost every case for there to life at all like ourselves. That is called the anthropic principle. However, that alone does not make God necessary. Some scientists conclude that we are just lucky and that, in any event, if those conditions did not prevail we would not be here to observe it. Others see more going on.
About fifteen years ago biologist Michael J. Denton wrote a book with the title Nature's Destiny. His argument, well supported by factual evidence, was that there was a destiny built into the universe. That destiny would produce eventually life something like ourselves on some world much like ours. Denton was not a theist. But he was convinced that the universe by its makeup displayed some purpose. If that is so, then we can derive from nature that God, if there is such, would have to be both highly intelligent and ingenious in the design he created in the universe, a design that inevitably leads to sentient life.
As an aside, it would be interesting to speculate whether there are other worlds on which sentient life might be found. There is no reason to reject that possibility since the very nature of nature is productive of life.
But back to our task. What of the that sentient and wonderfully imaginative life? It would seem reasonable to assume that the effect of a cause cannot be greater than the cause. If we think, if we are imaginative, if we have a sense of right and wrong, if we have a will, it suggests that this God who is our cause also has volition, is moral, creative, and obviously sentient. All that is to say that he is a person, for those are the characteristics that define a person.They define us.
Now, what of Gould's observations about the cruelty of nature? Does nature argue that God is cruel? Gould would not take the argument that far. But he took it far enough. Nature is not immoral; it is nonmoral. The natural world other than ourselves cannot tell us about the nature of God. We, however, are moral. Does anyone doubt that? Virtually everyone makes judgments daily about the morality of the acts of others and their own. We may not agree on what is moral or immoral, though there are some basic agreements, but there is plenty of evidence for our moral nature. God, then, must be moral also if we his creations are moral.
It would be possibler to go further, but we can draw these conclusions about this God who is the ultimate cause. He is powerful. He is creative and imaginative. He is intelligent and wise. He is moral. He has volition. He is personal.
But of course, that picture may fit many different presuppositions. Allah, Yahweh, and possibly some of the gods of the Asian religions could fit those characteristics. So, is it possible to decide based on reasonable examination of the evidence which god is God? I think so, but that waits another blog.