By Robert Wheeler
A major goal of Science, particularly physics, has been resolution of conflict between relativity theory and quantum theory that would enable development of a global theory that would provide a unified explanation of our observed environment, the elusive Theory of Everything (TOE). Although this effort has been limited to elite individuals in the scientific community, it relates to a fundamental characteristic of all healthy humans. Built into all of us is a need to explain the phenomena we experience in daily life as well as the source, predictability, and meaning of our existence. This concern about a personal theory of everything has been variously called philosophy of life, worldview, or life meaning and it competes with more immediate concerns of immediate daily existence such as money, comfort, and entertainment. It varies among people, however it has been a dominant social force throughout known human history. Since ontology is the branch of philosophy dealing with being or ultimate reality, this concern could be called the “ontological imperative,” an imperative to acquire an explanation of existence. It has been the foundation for religions, cultures, and the advance of civilization.
In early days, humans did not have formal science to explain many experiences, such as “I feel cold.” The explanation was readily seen as “nature’s drop in the temperature.” But, explaining reason for the temperature drop was mysterious, and supernatural explanation was helpful, a process now called “God of the gaps.” This is not the only explanation for the development of religion; however, belief in supernatural deity has ameliorated need for a TOE throughout history for many people. It was the reduction of uncertainty that brought people together with shared beliefs and social organizations that developed religions. Dogma helped to relieve some uncertainty but created a problem as it conflicted with new information and experience. Logic and inconsistencies were frequently subjugated to belief and faith.
Where religion’s provision for explaining everything as the work of Deity/God, the advance of science provided more specific natural explanations bringing the need for a supernatural explanation into question. The questioning of dogma brought into question validity of other beliefs and reduced the influence of religion in general. This is unfortunate because in addition to providing a TOE for many people, religious organizations provided social support, moral guidance, object of worship, purpose, forgiveness, immortality, and salvation. Recent surveys show a major drop in traditional religions and belief in God; however, an increase in non-traditional or quasi-religious groups indicates that people still need religion but are unsatisfied with what has been available. The recent increase in domestic crime, murder, and violence has been attributed to decreased influence of organized religion in the United States. It seems that declining influence of an authoritative God has increased lawlessness and reduced sense of purpose to self-gratification.
It must be recognized that science has not been able to come up with a TOE mainly because it can only deal with what is observable, while religion provides a TOE directly and with authority. Unfortunately the latter is based on revealed or insightful knowledge emerging from humans and is subject to interpretation and questioned. Furthermore, implications of many religious beliefs do not make sense because of modern experiences and new objective information. It is possible that ideas about an omnipotent all-knowing benefactor may have come from adaption to daily experiences rather than from a supernatural deity. We do not really know, but we do know that religions ameliorate many important human needs by providing services mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is interesting that many non-theistic organizations have come to also meet many of these needs. But, belief in a deity provides some needs such as object of worship, salvation, positive regard, and immortality that are not easily met by non-theistic groups. So, for optimal well-being it seems that we need belief in a deity as well uncertainty about its nature and validity. This is the “great paradox,” belief and doubt about a supernatural deity. At the present time, traditional concepts of God cannot accommodate this paradox. Change is inevitable and here is an example of possible solution.
A new term free of the constraints attached to traditional deities such as God, Allah, Brahman might help. A candidate is “ontosreality” which incorporates “ontos,” an ancient Greek term representing ultimate being for which nothing proceeded; nothing existed before it, or it could have existed forever without a beginning. This would be something recognized as beyond our current knowledge that was a forerunner of our existence and gave our existence meaning and purpose. Ontosreality would be like a straw man that could be modified with new knowledge while still providing a deity for different groups of people according to their needs and desires. This is not doing away with God, but it is an attempt to open traditional religions to new information that makes their beliefs and dogma compatible with science findings and modern experiences. It must be recognized that the nature of ontosreality is not known at the present time, so we must be tolerant of varying needs and interpretations. Could this rejuvenate the declining influence of a moral authority not subject to the vicissitudes of human judgement that is so urgently needed in the United States? And, could this globally stimulate the search for its nature and replace competition and aggression with cooperation and sharing?