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Belief in God

I have often thought that the question of belief or non-belief in God is not so much a question of argumentation as it is a question of choice, owing to the unfathomed complexity of the universe. I have also thought that once the choice is made, that choice should at least be intellectually and, for me, spiritually satisfying. I would like to lay out some of the reasons behind my choice to believe in God.

Such reasons necessarily impinge on certain beliefs of those who have chosen not to believe in God. For example, I have heard the bald statement that “all things have a natural explanation, that all phenomena are caused by impersonal laws of physics, not by any expression of sentient will.” The implication here is apparently that laws of physics are all encompassing in their capacity to explain “all things”; that there is nothing of intelligence in laws of nature because they are impersonal and certainly not sentient. Thus, belief based on the laws of physics provides uniquely natural explanations, which necessarily obviate any old-fashioned, superstitious explanations based on belief in God because, obviously, “God” can only be imagined to be goal oriented, as well as personal and sentient.

This simple approach to explanation is satisfying if one can swallow the claim that its scope really does account for (or even potentially accounts for) the cause of “all things.” Hidden in this view is a tacit assumption that demands a clarification of the scope of “cause.” Most objectionable is the restriction of cause to the impersonal and the non-sentient. Obviously, the law of gravity does not care what is falling off a cliff, be it a rock or the most important person in the world. It is impersonal and non-sentient in doing its duty either way. On the other hand, the impersonal, non-sentient computer that responds to the very personal, deliberate, sentient, goal-oriented touch of my fingers is surely something whose existence is not the product of some mechanical “law of nature”—although such laws are certainly at the heart of the physicality of its function. Mechanical laws, which purport to explain all things, do not now nor can they ever account for the human artifacts found all over the face of the earth. These are the product of personal, purposeful, sentient behavior. The nature of human cognition and subsequent human invention cannot be ignored if one insists on explaining “all things.” It does not make sense to consider the vicissitudes of the human condition outside of what counts as reality.

But much more importantly, even the suggestion that any mechanical law of nature has no connection with thought in its rational power and influence is unfounded, because such laws are not only rational in their predictability and behavior, they are themselves a species of thought. Evidence that they really are a species of thought is that they yield to cognition and understanding; and with that understanding, we use them for our comfort and benefit. We have even used them to devise and execute a trip to the moon and back.

Sadly, the material world is too much with us, prompting such fierce but mistaken focus on the material effects of “laws of physics” that the nature of the laws themselves is ignored. Such material emphasis blinds even capable thinkers to the cause behind the effects so overwhelmingly manifest in the physical, tangible world we experience. It is the mode of being of governing laws that deserves our attention—not just the predictable effect of such laws. Formulae that predict physical effects must never be confused with the laws that cause such effects.

The monumental failure of such mesmerizing focus on material effects is the failure to see the positive connection between causal laws and the remarkable faculty of ratiocination. In this regard, consider C.S. Peirce’s (CP 5.604) assessment of “pervasive laws of the universe” and the faculties of mind: “[I]f the universe conforms . . . to certain highly pervasive laws, and if man’s mind has been developed under the influence of those laws, it is to be expected that he should have a natural light, or light of nature, or instinctive insight, or genius, tending to make him guess those laws aright, or nearly aright.” In short, “the reasoning mind is [it]self a product of this universe. These same laws are thus, by logical necessity, incorporated in his own being” (CP 5.603).

Someone once told me that he did not believe in Aristotle’s final cause because it was teleological—it had to be purposeful and therefore a product of thought. He could only believe in the unconscious nature of mechanical, natural laws because it was impossible to see purpose in their expression. What he did not understand is that thought is not necessarily something that is only in us: “One must not take a nominalistic view of thought as if it were something that a man had in his consciousness. . . . Thought is more without us than within. It is we that are in it, rather than it in any of us” (Peirce 8.256). Therefore, what he did not understand is that causation is only sometimes an expression of sentient, conscious will. The effects of the law of gravity are not the effects of conscious planning, but they are teleological in the sense that such effects are informed by the final causation attributable to that law.

One would be intellectually blind not to see that intelligence, structure, and lawful organization—conscious or unconscious—infuses every particle of the universe, from the beautiful organization and structure of the subatomic world of particles, to the structure and intelligence manifest in the material world, to the intellectual nature of life, to the solar system, and even to the universe itself. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1). “Therefore, whoever cannot look at the starry heaven without thinking that all this universe must have had an adequate cause, can in my opinion not otherwise think of that cause half so justly than by thinking it is God” (Peirce 5.536).

More explicitly, Peirce (1:316) argues for an anthropomorphic God:

I hear you say: “This smacks too much of an anthropomorphic conception.” I reply that every scientific explanation of a natural phenomenon is a hypothesis that there is something in nature to which the human reason is analogous; and that it really is so all the successes of science in its applications to human convenience are witnesses. They proclaim that truth over the length and breadth of the modern world. In the light of the successes of science to my mind there is a degree of baseness in denying our birthright as children of God and in shamefacedly slinking away from anthropomorphic conceptions of the universe.

It is truly remarkable that our transcendent nature allows us to represent with ever increasing accuracy the realities the govern us and our universe. What must be acknowledged is the faculty that allows for our growth, be it intellectual, physical, or moral. In the broadest sense, our intellect is less than, but analogous with, the lawful realities we discover, whose effects we represent. Our capacity to understand is in a real sense the same as the lawful realities that we have capacity to represent in our language and even in our conscious and unconscious behavior.

If we think about—really think about—the intimate details of how any of us come to understand a previously opaque phenomenon, the scales will fall from our eyes, and we will see that all genuine understanding has at least this element: what characterizes our mind is analogous to what characterizes the phenomenon we have rationalized. We are neither more nor less than the governing laws that we come to understand. Propositions that truly represent any significant reality are shibboleths of, as Peirce put it, “our birthright as children of God.”

From here I will be more specific by identifying those attributes that would prompt me to fall down and worship a being who is a God. For many reasons, including those outlined above, I would worship an anthropomorphic God.

First, I would worship a God whose glory is intelligence. By intelligence, I mean the etymological core of intelligence, which is inter leg-ere. Latin inter means ‘among,’ and the first definition of legere is ‘to choose.’ As a first approximation, intelligence, for me, amounts to an intrinsic, original faculty of a creative, organizing potential. Because the highest expression of “creation” and “organization” presupposes freedom to choose among alternatives, it follows that the highest expression of intelligence comes full circle, back to its etymological core: ‘to choose among.’

Second, I would worship a God who, through supernal intelligence, has chosen wisely among both physical and moral laws, which have produced in him the power and the means to offer to others at least the opportunity to rise to similar wise choices, with similar effects. I would worship a God of love, as identified by Plato:

Let us declare the cause which led the Supreme Ordainer to produce and compose the universe. He was good; and he who is good has no kind of envy. Exempt from envy, he wished that all things should be as much as possible like himself. Whosoever, taught by wise men, shall admit this as the prime cause of the origin and foundation of the world, will be in the truth.

Third, I would worship an evolutionary God—a God who has progressed to his godly state. I would worship a God, who, through his creative and organizing genius, would give reason for my very being, and for the being of all my earthly brothers and sisters. I would worship a God who would respect the freedom of all to choose, while supplying us the means of “being as much as possible like himself.”

Finally, I do worship a revelatory God—a God with all the properties and characteristics revealed by and through the prophet Joseph Smith that resulted in the restoration of the Church of Jesus. The beauty, the grace, and the goodness of the totality of ideas that came through Joseph have given me a wholly satisfying life, spiritually, physically, and intellectually.


John S. Robertson (Ph.D., Harvard University) is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Brigham Young University.

Dr. Robertson is the author or co-author of several books, among them: as principal author, with John Hawkins and Andrés Maldonado, Mam Basic Course (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1969); with Robert W. Blair, et al., Cakchiquel Basic Course (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1969); with Julio Salazar, Cakchiquel: A Basic Course for Language Learning (Provo: Language Training Mission, 1977); with Hugh Biesinger and Randy Ellsworth, Quiché: A Basic Course for Language Learning (Provo: Language Training Mission, 1977); The Structure of Pronoun Incorporation in the Mayan Verbal Complex (New York: Garland Press, 1980); with Robert Blair, et al., Diccionario Español-Cakchiquel-Inglés (New York: Garland Press, 1981); The History of Tense/Aspect/Mood/Voice in the Mayan Verbal Complex (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992); and, with Danny Law and Robbie A. Haertel, Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Moran Manuscript (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

He is also the author or co-author of numerous academic articles including, in the International Journal of American Linguistics, “A Syntactic Example of Kurylowicz’s Fourth Law of Analogy in Mayan” (1975); “A Phonological Reconstruction of the Ergative Third-Person Singular of Common Mayan” (1977); “The History of the Absolutive Second Person Pronoun from Common Mayan to Modern Tzotzil,” (1982); “Colonial Evidence for a Pre-Quiché, Ergative 3sg *ru-” (1984); “A Re-Construction of the Ergative 1SG for Common Tzeltal-Tzotzil based on Colonial Documents” (1985); “A Reconstruction and Evolutionary Statement of the Mayan Numerals from 20 to 400” (1986); “The Origins of the Mamean Pronominals: A Mayan/Indo-European Typological Comparison” (1987); “The Common Beginning and Evolution of the Tense-Aspect System of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan” (1987); and “The Origins and Development of the Huastec Pronouns” (1993).

With Stephen Houston and David Stuart, Dr. Robertson is the co-author of, among other things, “Disharmony in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Linguistic Change and Continuity in the Classic Society.” Anatomía de una civilizatión. Aproximaciones interdisciplinarias a la cultura Maya, ed. by Ciudad-Ruiz, Andrés Yolanda Fernández Marquínez, José Miguel García Campillo, M.a Josefa Iglesias Ponce de León, Alfonsos Lacadena García-Gallo, Luis T. Sanz Castro (Madrid: Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas, 1998), 275-296; “A Ch’olti’an Explanation for Ch’orti’an Grammar: A Postlude to the Language of the Classic Maya” Mayab 11 (1998): 5-11; “Recovering the Past: Classic Maya Language and Classic Maya Gods,” in Notebook for the XXIIIrd Mayan Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas. (Austin: Department of Art and Art History, the College of Fine Arts, and the Institute of Latin American Studies of the University of Texas at Austin, 1999; “The History of First Person Singular in the Mayan Languages,” International Journal of American Linguistics 65 (1999): 449-465; “The Language of the Classic Mayan Inscriptions.” Current Anthropology 41:321-356 (2000); “Quality and Quantity in Glyphic Nouns and Adjectives,” Research Reports on Ancient Mayan Writing (Washington DC: Center for Maya Research, 2001); and “More on the Language of Classic Maya Inscriptions,” Current Anthropology 42 (2001): 558-559. With Stephen Houston, he is the co-author of “El problema del Wasteko: Una perspectiva lingüística y arqueológica,” in XVI simposio de investigaciones arqueológicas en Guatemala, ed. Juan Pedro Laporte, Bárbara Arroyo, Héctor Escobedo, and Héctor Mejía (Guatemala: Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, 2003). With Stephen Houston and Danny Law, he is the co-author of “Split Ergativity in the History of the Ch’olan Branch of the Mayan Language Family,” International Journal of American Linguistics 72.

Professor Robertson has also published on the historical linguistics of Mayan in such places as Language, Anthropos, Quaderni di Semantica, Anthropological Linguistics, Journal of Mayan Linguistics, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Grammar: Invariance and Variation (Amsterdam, 1991); and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: Civilizations of Mexico and Central America (2001); and, with Zachary Hruby, published “The Verbal Morphology of the Classic Mayan Word tzutz” (Washington DC: Center for Maya Research, 2001). He wrote about more general linguistic topics for Computing in the Humanities (1982), Semiotics (1983), and Semiotica, and, on the thought of C. S. Peirce, for Semiotica, Lingüística, and From Time and Chance to Consciousness: Studies in the Metaphysics of Charles Peirce (Oxford, 1994).

Posted October 2011