clifford_pickover's picture
Author, The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy
Would you choose universe Omega or Upsilon?


Consider two universes. Universe Omega is a universe in which God does not exist, but the inhabitants of the universe believe God exists. Universe Upsilon is a universe in which God does exist, but no inhabitant believes God exists. In which universe would you prefer to live? In which universe do you think most people would prefer to live?

I recently posed this question to scientists, philosophers, and lay people. Some respondents suggested that if people think God exists, then God is sufficiently "real." A few individuals suggested that people would behave more humanely in a Universe where people believed in God. Yet others countered that an ethical system dependent on faith in a watchful, omniscient, or vengeful God is fragile and prone to collapse when doubt begins to undermine faith. A fuller listing of responses is in the book.

To me, the biggest challenge to answering this question is understanding what is meant by "God." Scientists sometimes think of God as the God of mathematical and physical laws and the underpinnings of the universe. Other people believe in a God who intervenes in our affairs, turns water into wine, answers prayers, and smites the wicked. The Koran implies that God lives outside of time, and, thus, our brains are not up to the task of understanding Him. Some theologians have suggested that only especially sensitive individuals can glimpse God, but us ordinary folk shouldn't deny His existence in the same way that a blind man shouldn't deny the existence of a rainbow. In modern times, many scientists ponder the amazing panoply of chemical and physical constants that control the expansion of the universe and seem tuned to permit the formation of stars and the synthesis of carbon-based life.

Questions about God's omniscience are particularly mind-numbing, yet we can still ask if it is rational to believe in an omniscient God. As Steven J. Brams points out in his book Superior Beings, "The rationality of theistic belief is separate from its truth — a belief need not be true or even verifiable to be rational." However, if we posit the existence of an omniscient God, His omniscience may require him to know the history of all quarks in the universe, the states of all electrons, the vibrations of every string, and the ripples of the quantum foam. Is this the same God, who in Exodus 21 gave Moses laws describing when one should stone an ox to death? Is the God of Gluons and Galaxies the same God concerned with Israeli oxen dung?

But what about the Bible itself? Today, the Bible — especially the Old Testament — may serve as an alternate reality device. It gives its readers a glimpse of other ways of thinking and of other worlds. It is also the most mysterious book ever written. We don't know the ratio of myth to history. We don't know all the authors. We are not always sure of the intended message. We don't fully understand the Old Testament's Nephilim or its Bridegroom of Blood. We only know that that the Bible reflects some of humankind's most ancient and deep feelings. For some unknown reason, it is a bell that has resonated through the centuries. It lets us reach across cultures, see visions, and better understand what we have held sacred. Because the Bible is a hammer that shatters the ice of our unconscious, it thus provides one of many mechanisms in our quest for transcendence.