Stephen Kosslyn once put forward the intriguing notion that God exists but is not supernatural
I recently came across an interesting book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? (2006), edited by John Brockman. The book is a collection of "dangerous" ideas proposed by 108 of today’s leading thinkers (including physicists Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin, Paul Davies, Frank Tipler, philosopher Daniel Dennett and biochemist Craig Venter), with a preface by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins. Today I present you with one fascinating idea from this book, proposed by Stephen M Kosslyn, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. I am neither advocating nor criticising Kosslyn’s proposal – I merely present it as an intriguing idea.
Kosslyn’s dangerous idea is: God exists but is not supernatural; God is part of the natural order. When looked at in this manner, the God concept can be approached scientifically. On the other hand, the orthodox approach, to which I generally subscribe, is to view science and religion as inhabiting two largely “non-overlapping magisteria” (in the words of Stephen Jay Gould). Kosslyn’s idea will please neither the atheist nor the religious.
Kosslyn’s concept of God is of a supreme being that transcends time and space, permeates our world but also stands outside of it, and can intervene in our daily lives, partly in response to prayer.
A scientific approach to this concept rests on three principles. Firstly, emergent properties: this is a well-known phenomenon whereby new properties emerge from aggregates, properties that cannot be fully predicted from the properties of individual aggregate elements. Thus, life emerges from aggregates of biochemicals of particular types in large numbers, mind emerges from neurons in large numbers, and economic and social systems emerge from minds in large numbers. Secondly, downward causality: events at higher levels (where emergent properties arise) can affect events at lower levels, for example an economic depression affects individuals living in society. Thirdly, the ultimate superset: the set of all living things. This superset has emergent properties that feed back to affect the living things that make up the superset.