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Why it matters whether God is more like a matchbox or a number
by Graeme J. Davidson,
3 February 2007

Maybe God exists then like a number, or the queen in a game of chess. And like mathematicians deriving formulas, we derive the rules for how to perceive the deity acting in the world – and how to respond – by how we define our God through creeds, dogmas and ethical expectations.

...Is God more like a matchbox or a number? Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of last century’s most influential philosophers once asked his Cambridge students that deceptively simple question. Let’s have a go at answering it.
...We can see, touch, hear, smell, and, if we’re game enough, taste matchboxes. That’s relatively straightforward. What happens, though, if I insist I can see a matchbox that you can’t see? Naturally, if I couldn’t strike a light or do anything else to convince you of the existence of my invisible matchbox, you’d tell me it’s a figment of my imagination.

...But I’m adamant my matchbox exists. So, you bring in scientists with sophisticated instruments. And when their tests find no evidence of anything like an unseen matchbox, you’d conclude I’m deluded. Does that imply, then, that my matchbox is nothing more than a hallucination caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain? Not to me
. I know what I’m experiencing and it seems very real. So, unfazed by your scepticism, I argue that you haven’t disproved the existence of my matchbox. All you’ve shown is that the invisible matchbox is beyond the realm of your science.
... Is belief in God’s existence like that of my rock-solid faith in an invisible matchbox?
...Nowadays, nobody worships the Egyptian wind god, Amun. So, was that ancient religious belief a mass delusion? Does it follow that the few billion Christians, Muslims, Jews and others today who believe in God in one way or another are also deluded? Perhaps believers deceive themselves by creating an illusion of an anthropomorphic God-like parent revealed through prophets and others to explain the origins of the universe and the events of history - and their own destiny.
... I couldn’t produce proof of my invisible matchbook. But those who believe in God point to what they maintain is tangible evidence, like historical events recorded in scripture, the effect of God in people’s lives or this familiar argument: the intricate parts of a watch don’t just come together by chance. Similarly, the complexities of the universe, including the wonder of life itself, must have an Intelligent Designer. Yet that’s not really evidence. It’s argument from analogy.
... Of course, scientists use analogy for their theories and models, such as how electric current flows like a fluid. They postulate concepts they’ve never seen and have little understanding about, such as dark matter in outer space. And aren’t scientists sometimes deluded and don’t they end up performing theoretical flip-flops when research reveals new information? Isn’t that similar to the way theologians do u-turns with their theories about God as they study archaeological, scriptural and other evidence of God’s footprint in history. And so the debate continues.
... What though if we think of God as being more like a number? Numbers aren’t physical objects like matchboxes. Yes, we can write marks that symbolise numbers and we can point to any number of oranges and widgets. That’s how we use numbers. But we can’t see, touch, hear, smell or taste numbers. They’re abstract concepts that represent quantity. And they exist because we define them into existence as part of mathematics.
... If you’re turned off by maths, think of numbers as existing like knights, pawns and other pieces in a game of chess where we’ve defined the characters and rules of the game to represent opposing medieval kingdoms. Yet, even though it’s only a game, chess can still influence lives. In fact, in the Middle Ages chess was used to teach war strategies. Mathematics, too, is like a very sophisticated game that we use as a tool for our benefit in commerce, science and technology.
...Maybe God exists then like a number, or the queen in a game of chess. And like mathematicians deriving formulas, we derive the rules for how to perceive the deity acting in the world – and how to respond – by how we define our God through creeds, dogmas and ethical expectations. Therefore, people don’t worship the same God under different names, but have defined into existence distinct gods, some with similar and some with different traits – like the king and queen in chess have some powers in common and some that are different.
... If you think of God as more like a number, questions about finding physical evidence to prove the existence of God – or whether the faithful are deluded – are irrelevant. God just is.



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