God Is An Analogy – But Then, So Is the Number 6

Depending on how it hits you, this little sound bite comes across as either completely obvious or completely wrong, or at the very least counter-intuitive. Believers feel that it’s short-changing God because he is. Unbelievers feel that it’s short-changing science because you can find six things and count them. The fact is, God and science have a lot more in common than meets the eye. God is the same way six is. This only became obvious to me recently. Let me tell you about it.

Human beings think by analogy *. The pictures we make in our heads are what runs our intellectual operating systems, with strong real-time links to our emotional, information gathering and even our digestive systems (especially when the emotions kick in). Our sense of ourselves is derived by analogy and our means of communicating that sense to others is accomplished for the most part by using the thousands of mini-analogies we call words. It’s easy to forget that we made us up. Nature provided us with breathing, eating, defecating and breeding machines to live in. We thought up the rest, literally. The human brain is as flesh and blood as the rest of us, but it does things the rest of us can’t. It makes things up. Everything from the wheel to the satellite to the love song to the listening device it’s played on had to be imagined before they could be made. E=mc² wasn’t a matter of seeing what was there and writing it down. There was an intuitive leap involved, a work of imagination that, when tested against reality, turned out to be true – with a vengeance. 

Galileo saw some solid dots moving across Jupiter and figured out that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe – quite a jump, also involving the use of a lot of imagination. It took a long time before that game-changing  “big blue marble”  picture taken from the moon verified it, really verified it. What’s easy to forget is that the idea that the earth was the center of the universe required the same use of imagination – and until a guy with a camera touched down on the lunar surface, the observable facts pretty well supported it. The experience of normal life still does. Even though we know better, we still call sundown sundown and we still say (and sing about) moonlight even though the moon is a dead hunk of rock that doesn’t give off any more light than the wall behind my light bulb.

So what does all this have to do with God? Everything. The idea of a God, an invisible, powerful, much, much bigger projection of ourselves who’s actually running everything, has been with us since we first started imagining that using a rock for a weapon could protect us from animals with bigger teeth than us. We were right about the rock, so we figured we were right about God (or the Gods, as it started out – we were social beings, so we figured they were too). It made sense. We had no reason to believe that night, day, wind and weather were the result of invisible thermodynamic interactions related to the spinning of the earth, the planet’s distance from the sun, variations in the jet stream and the butterfly effect. Any ancient weathergirl who got up on a rock and tried to say so would have been offered whatever primitive psychiatric care was available, and probably prayed for (or stoned depending on the local religious orientation). It was perfectly plausible to assume that things were happening because something or somebody was making them happen, just like everything else that happened in front of our faces – the trees got wet when it rained, a footprint in the dirt meant that some foot had stepped there, an animal bled when you hit it with that rock, because you hit it with that rock. We had no reason to think things were happening randomly (they aren’t, actually – but it still feels like they do – and we still don’t like it). Which brings us to our next point.

Of more importance than the apparent, intuitively consistent truth of an earth-centric universe with an interested deity running it is the psychological truth behind both ideas. We are the center of the universe – I am, you are, each of us in his or her own way sees everything around us, unavoidably, from the seat in the center. And when we’re gone, it’s gone. Seeing our planet as the center of it all is only an analogy (remember analogies?) for our own comforting sense of being the reason why it’s all here – and the fear that kicks in when we realize that we’re not is what got Galileo locked up. The fear that this gigantic chaotic multi-million planet ship we call the universe, and our own soccer ball-shaped starship in particular has nobody at the helm is pretty unsettling. “God” is nothing more or less than the name we give to our feeling that “I may not be able to see who’s running all this, but somebody is”. God is the picture we put on that feeling, an analogy we can address our complaints to, beg for strength or forgiveness as the occasion demands, and get at least some sense of order and control from – God and the number six.

It’s easy to forget that there’s no such thing as six. We made it up. It’s our projection onto disorganized reality to help us make sense of it – an analogy. The universe can’t count. Only we can – with that analogy-making brain we were talking about. And when we put our analogy “six” to the test, most of the time it holds up pretty well, whether we’re trying to get to a place one block past Fifth Avenue or buying beer in an easy to carry container. Six works. When it doesn’t, it’s usually just because we counted wrong and we get to try again. Testing the divine analogy is harder. God is by definition invisible – she, he, or “the life force running though the universe” isn’t available for observation.  Projecting the analogy of a guiding hand that cares about us onto the workings of nature, blind chance and the actions of our fellow humans is getting harder by the minute. Prayers aren’t getting answered like they used to. Or are they?

Despite the occasional success story (similar to the 65 year old lady from Piscataway who hit the slots jackpot in Atlantic City on her first try), prayers throughout history have not been answered. For every miraculous cure, there were a million praying people who stayed sick. And even the ones who got better died anyway – all of them. But people still pray – because that’s not what prayer is really about. We’re not praying for concrete results. Despite the way its official salesmen try to package it, prayer isn’t an investment. It’s simply a way of making us feel a little less powerless in the face of life’s hurricanes. And in that way, it’s not all that different from watching the contemporary weather person on the eleven o’clock news. We can track this stuff better than we used to, but we can’t control it any more than our cave-dwelling ancestors. The millions of irresistible, non-negotiable forces underlying the unexpected wintry mix that caused that thirty car pileup on route 80 are still frustrating and scaring us, especially if we have to drive on route 80. But we’ll watch the weather tonight anyway, just for the feeling of having a little more control than we do. And you can bet a lot of people stuck in that nine-hour jam-up on route 80 looked up at the snow-filled sky at least once and cried out “Why does this happen to me?” 

We need to ask somebody – and number six isn’t listening. To say that God isn’t either misses the point. Six is the right analogy for getting a grip on how many pieces there are in two sets of three, and God is the right analogy for getting a grip on ourselves when the pure size of it all hits us in the face. The fact that both analogies came from the same place may just be the starting point to get the believers and unbelievers talking to each other – whether they know it or not they’re already speaking the same language. 

* For those interested in going into it more deeply, Douglas Hofstadter, and Emmanuel Sander’s Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking  does a great job of charting out this thought-provoking (or is it analogy-provoking) territory.