Transcript of Abel Pienaar’s participation in dialogue

This is the transcript of Abel Pienaar’s participation in his dialogue with Richard Howe on the topic, God: A Human Invention or Not? (To hear Howe’s participation and responses watch the video of the discussion. To read a critique of Pienaar’s views, see here.)

Question 1: Which of the following two statements, in your opinion, describes “God” the best and for what reasons:

  1. “God” refers to a real transcendent Being that exists independently of time, space, matter, energy and irrespective of what people of any age might think about him; or
  2. “God” refers to our human experience as thinking people of every age try to make sense of the ever-growing knowledge of the world they live in.

Abel Pienaar answers:

Thank you. And for all of you coming out tonight – thank you for that. Well, for me, I don’t think a) God is a being that exist independent of time, space, matter, energy – can in any way be proven.(3) And in “proven” I, of course, refer to the knowledge, as we should, the communicable, repeatable, testable result of a demonstration or an experience.(1) But let me start by saying this. No science, it should be repeated, can also answer this question.(2) No matter what scientific evidence is brought forward to explain the architecture of atoms or the ways that neurons exchange chemical and electrical signals to create the sensations in our minds, or the manner in which the universe may have been born out of the quantum foam, science cannot disprove the existence of God — any more than a fish can disprove the existence of trees. But likewise, no matter what gaps exist in current scientific knowledge, no matter what baffling good deeds people do, no matter what divine and spiritual feelings people have, theology (or even philosophy) cannot prove the existence of God either.(4)

It is like Immanual Kant, also an agnostic, said, we could neither prove nor disprove God’s existence, because we have no reliable means of verification. We have no reliable means of verification.

For me the most persuasive evidence of God, according to the great philosopher and psychologist William James, it’s not physical or objective or provable. It is the highly personal transcendent experience. Or in this case, as b) puts it: God as I understand the word refers to my human experience as a thinking person. So this God of Richard, or any of the about three thousand gods of man through the centuries are at most created by us. Does that means there is no God? We do not know.(5) That is the only honest answer we can give.

I do however have a certain number of reasons or arguments that seems to me stronger than the ones that make the opposite case. For example, I cannot help thinking that if such a God existed, he or she should have been easier to perceive or feel.(6) All you would need to do is open your eyes and your soul – and believe me, I keep trying to do this. I even studied theology and practiced it for many years, and no matter how wide I opened my heart and my eyes, what I saw and still see, is the world and what I love is life in all its beauty.(9)

So many believers go to great lengths to convince us that such a God does exist (of course, their specific God – this is very kind of them). But it would be so much simpler and so much more effective if he or she just appear to us, just give us a clear undeniable sign, something that even science would be unable to dismiss: proof, evidence in the empirical sense.(7)

I therefore rather agree with someone like Bishop John Shelby Spong when he says: “I dismiss the supernatural, external God of theism. Theism and God are not the same. Theism is but one human definition of God.”(10)

Therefore I am what you might call a spiritual agnostic. That is, I do not claim to know that God does not exist (8), but I do claim to the value of living a spiritual life. And the spiritual part, by no means do I mean ‘supernatural’. I’m referring to what the American philosopher, Ken Wilbur, calls the direct experience of a living reality, disclosed in the heart and consciousness of individuals. Or as the atheist and neuro-scientist, Sam Harris, eloquently puts it: Spirituality does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos, but it does reveal how utterly transfigured the mind can be by full collision with the present moment.

In other words, my spiritual…spirituality and my spiritual experience I mean what the Buddha called “being awake”. That means I do agree with b), especially the second part it, “as thinking people of every age try to make sense of the world we live in”. And therefore I am also quite certain of the statement: Man is and always has [sic] been a maker of gods. This is how we humans from the beginning tried to make sense of our world. Thank you.


Question 2: As a philosopher, what would you say is a reasonable explanation for why something (like our universe and everything in it) rather than nothing exists?

Abel Pienaar answers:

Thanks. A friend of mine recently said to me, “I can’t be an atheist, I can’t believe there is nothing, I believe there is something, at least an energy.” And I said, “No Kidding! I too believe there’s something, an energy.”

This indeed is exactly what physicists teach us: being is energy. But to believe in God is not to believe in an energy, is to believe in a will or a person. It is not to believe in “something”, it is to believe in “someone”. And that, that “will”, that “someone” for you here, most of you here, the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God who became flesh in Jesus, for others, God of Mohammed or Krishna or whatever – is what I personally do not believe in. That there’s something is open to no doubt – there is something.

And this “something”, of course it’s a force of some kind: what the Greeks called energeia, what Spinoza called conatus, what modern physics called energy – it is self-evident to anybody capable of observing nature. There is something. The question is not Whether, but Why is there this something? Why nature, why energy, why being, why becoming? This of course was the German philosopher Leibniz’s great question. Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is a question that goes beyond the theistic God, since it includes him or her. Why is there a God rather than nothing?(11) The question of being is elemental and occurs constantly through history. Yet, no one can answer it. And to say being is eternal, is not to explain it. And to think of being as necessary for something to exist, is also not to explain it. It is merely to say that it can be explained only by itself (we just heard that) – it is its own cause (as a philosopher often puts it)(13), which makes it forever incomprehensible to us.(14) Philosophers are as much at the mercy of this mystery(15), as physicists and theologians.

Why the Big Bang rather than nothing? Why God rather than nothing? Why everything rather than nothing? The question, Why is there something rather than nothing?, is in essence unanswerable.(12)

But that makes it all the more fascinating, enlightening, stimulating, because it confronts us with the mystery of being – which can’t be separated from its self-evidence. It startles us out of our posivistic [sic] sleep, it upsets our habits, our certainties and our so-called facts.

Of course it proves nothing about a so-called God or creator. And as the philosopher, Voltaire, once said: Non liquet (it’s not clear). A term that was applied during the Roman Republic to a legal verdict of “not proven,” because it can’t be proven. This “something” could equally be(17) Anaximander’s “apeiron”, the infinite, the undetermined; or Heraclitus’ ever-changing fire, the becoming; or Parmenides’ impersonal being; or Lao Tzu’s equally impersonal Dao; or the quantum physics’ foam; or the new theory in quantum physics – it’s not the Big Bang it’s the Big Crunch. It could have come out of nothingness,(16) because we don’t understand nothingness yet, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been. It could be natural reason, really. It could have been caused by Spinoza’s, what Spinoza called substance, namely that which is its own cause and the cause of everything else which is also absolutely necessary, eternal and infinite, but immanent (whose effects are within itself). And another possibility and the one favoured by most physicists today: the universe is one of zillion different universes, with a huge range of parameters, including many different values for the strength of the nuclear force and the density of dark energy. Maybe it’s Hinduism’s pantheism or even panentheism (God is everything and also more than everything) – who can say for certain?(19) – there is no validating proof of any of this and you will hear no proof tonight.(18) But let’s stop with a question: how come we try to explain something natural which we do not understand (the universe, life, human consciousness) by something we understand even less – the so-called supernatural God?


Question 3: Assuming that humans have desires for morality, religious worship and justice for crimes, where and how would you argue did these desires originate from?

Abel Pienaar answers:

Morality…About six million years ago, the taleless apes, the chimpanzee and …hobono [sic], is the closest to our…ancestors. The rest of the family of the homo sapiens died out, so we have them…to refer back to. And what we’ve seen with them, they’ve got morality, they’ve got group hierarchy, they punish each other if they do wrong, they even care for each other…they’ve even proved now that they can remember who owes them anything, when they did something bad or good…(20) and the…earliest we can go back to where language started…because language is a prequisition [sic] for religion – without language you can’t have religion, because you have to convert, to give each other your ideas and talk about abstract ideas and give each other a sense of something bigger and what is your sense and what is mine. So without language you don’t have religion. (21) And…let’s say 15 thousand years ago we know that…our forefathers became [sic] from Africa, start [sic] the Big Trek and then we know language started. So the only we can say, okay now we can conclude that out of that language barrier that’s been crossed, now the religion came forward. But already now, six million years ago, we’ve got the apes, the chimpanzees and the hobono [sic] and they already…we could see morality with them. So morality pre-exist religion, so it’s a built-in thing. Morality is for me not something religion brings (22) and religion teaches – it’s a good vehicle for that (26), but it’s already there, it’s already inside us, we know what’s wrong and right.(23)

Confucius…he lived a long time before Jesus, had the golden rule: do unto others good things so that they can do it unto you. Jesus took that over, religion took that over – the golden rule is in all religions.(25) So, but, it didn’t start with…So in that sense let’s conclude: I say morality is a built-in thing, part of being a human and through language and religion we explored it an fine-tuned it.

Abel responds to Richard: My problem lies with when Richard says something like, “God gives this command or asks this of us” and then we go against our own nature. Where’s the proof in that, where do we find that, how can…can he come and tell me, okay, did you see that amazing thing that person did, that mother…she threw herself in front of the car to save her child. I can actually say that is quite natural. Morality is a natural expression of being human. It’s part of our DNA (24), it’s not a God-given…and in any case, if I did something good or selfless because God told me, and I’m hoping for a reward or trying to get free of a punishment – that’s not a good way of stuff. If…an atheist (and I’ve got a few atheist friends) tell me that they know they must do this, this is the right thing to do – from where does that come? Because they don’t believe God commanded that, they just do it, they know it’s the reasonable thing to do. It is supposed to be done and they do it. And I know a lot of people…if you look the world over where there’s need, mostly it is not the religious people first there helping. It is people who most of time don’t belief. It is the green peace people…it’s people that…they’ve got different reason for it, they are motivated by selfless love (27) – nothing to do with religion (28). Most of the times nothing to do with religion.


Question 4: People often complain that they can’t experience God with their senses. Why is it reasonable/rational to believe in a supernatural Being, such as God, that we cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell?

Pienaar responds to Howe:

(If I were with Richard, I would say…let me outa here…) I’m glad that he can see, touch, smell God. But let me start with the easier part. God by definition surpasses us, religion do [sic] not. They are human. They are the part we see. And they are much too human. Now all the major religions on this earth contradict each other. They can not be all correct, if they say this is God, this is how God looks, this is how God tastes, smells, whatever. They can’t be all correct, because they differ from each other.(29) For some it’s a black God, for some it’s a blue God, for some it’s a woman, for some it’s a lot of God’s with a lot of arms. So I’ve got a problem here. The people that say they know God…all I can see is…I can see religion, I can see people believe in it. Sometimes people tell me the devil is bad and he’s busy…I don’t see the devil, I only see people doing bad stuff. The existence of God is open to question. The existence of religion is not. Tonight the example Richard gives no proof of God – that is why we are here, is God…do we know he exist or not. I say we can’t know,(30) he says we can know. So, okay, where’s the proof, because our method we work with, the best one we got as human beings, are the scientific method.(31) I don’t say it’s perfect, but that’s what we got. Otherwise we can believe anything. I can say I believe in the Tokoloshe (it’s an African myth type of thing) and nobody can say it’s not true (32) – I believe it! So my problem is I see religion and I see that people need to believe, they want to believe, but I see no proof. I see no extential [sic] God. If I did, I would change my opinion.

Question 5: What, in your opinion, is the purpose to life?

Abel Pienaar answers:

The purpose of life. It’s a big one. I struggled with that a lot and that’s why after a few years of studying theology, being a Dutch Reformed minister for a while, where I preached to people and say [sic] this is the purpose of life, God is telling us to do this and the ultimate is to end up in heaven one day(36)…I came to the conclusion that there’s no heaven and there’s no hell. Heaven and hell is now. We are living there already.(37) So if you want to know what is the purpose of life, I like what Zen is teaching. Zen is you take Buddhism and you take Daoism, and you combine them and you get Zen-Buddhism.(34) Zen says when you peel the potatoes, don’t think about God, just peel the potatoes.(35) In that I’ve discovered living in the now, being awake, being mindful, being a good person, living profoundly, simply and deeply. That’s the purpose of life. Through that a lot of stuff flows, because life and being is energy. And in that sense I do believe you don’t die, because you can’t stop energy, energy doesn’t die, it change form, it keeps on going, the recycling of life. We come from the stars and we’ll return to the stars. All that stuff, but the purpose of life is to live profoundly and deeply now, and God has nothing to do with that for me.(33) There’s no impact. If there’s a God, great – I think you’d like it – if there’s not a God, it doesn’t matter. Trying to be good and decent, and live in such a way that I enrich the people around me. Live in love. And, I know, all the great teachers before me said that. We have to love. And respect.


Time for free engagement:

[Howe asks Pienaar whether he denies one of the two premises of his cosmological argument.]

First of all. I just want to say, you like Aristotle?…you like him a lot?… Okay, I just want to…I love it when you do that…Aristotle said, Men created gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form, but with regards to their mode of life…Okay, in any case…

To say, A = B, A meaning the creator and B, the creation. I see all of science, and all of your arguments, on B, the creation and how it is, and…how does it work, how does it tick and everything. But there’s a jump, every time in the argument, to A: there’s a God. That I don’t see. And that’s my problem with science also.

Okay, there’s a cause, but what proof do we have that that cause was made by something (I think you said outside of us), a cause has to be caused by something outside of us?(38) Why?

Okay, let’s say that is true (Richard’s claim that you couldn’t exist before you existed) (39), who then created God? (40) If your logic is something has to have created it (whatever we’ve got) and that is your God, then let’s take the logic – who created God? And who said he created only one other God? Where does it stop?

My biggest problem with Thomas Aquinas is that he…I think he duped us, by saying, by looking at what we’ve got, understanding that there’s good and bad, we can now project this to the unknown, and say there is perfect good there, perfect bad, devil-God.(43) God has got all…everything humans have, God has it perfect, had it perfect. How does he know? It’s the unknown. Thomas Aquinas even said at…some place, “All men know this.” No, maybe in the medieval times, but no, all men don’t know this. So, how do you get to that jump? That’s my problem with theists…the theist understanding of God. How do you get to that human God, living just above the clouds.(44)

My problem with philosophy in that sense, and I love philosophy…is the problem, the loose, the loose way they use evidence and facts, and even the scientific language, like you [Richard] also do…sometimes I’m also guilty of that. But now I know that you for example…we are talking about the Big Bang and…a finite time something started, a singularity. Now I know you’re a Young Earth Creationist. You believe the earth…is between 6 and 10 thousand years old. Okay. Now I’ve got a problem with that, because in that you deny all…the scientific facts in front of you. So you do use that scientific jargon and you even use that to…use an example to say somewhere something started, like say the Big Bang, but then you deny all the evidence up to that.(46) So we are back with the God of the gaps: firstly God was just hiding just above the clouds somewhere – now he is hiding behind the Big Bang or just in front of the Big Bang. But on top of that, you come and say, No, no, no…that’s actually rubbish – 6 000 years, 10 000 years everything started with a flood or whatever. And thereby…you can’t sit here and say you’re using science. You can’t, because 99%, 99.9% of all of science will differ from you. So we have to clear the table and say, okay, you don’t like that and you’re going to push that away. Then we can start philosophying [sic] about God or making ideas up or whatever. So that’s my problem here is I don’t know to engage with you. Because for me science isn’t God – I hate it when people try to put evolution in the place of God; where other people will say, No, Big Daddy created the Big Bang. I don’t like that either way. But the problem is we have to engage on an open table and you are using science, but you don’t believe in any of that. So what do you say to that, because that’s my problem here?

I think, all we’ve…all I put on the table is very much…a question to say or to ask, but you are here saying there is a God and a specific God, and you know how he looks, you know what he thinks, and you know what his will…is for everyone. Okay, so now I come and I say, But you use a lot of stuff and a lot of words and a lot of theories, that is outside of your discipline, but you don’t agree with that discipline. Now the burden of proof lies with you, not with me. Again with the Tokoloshe. If I claim there is a Tokoloshe loose in Stellenbosch, the burden of proof lies with me, not with you. I have to bring evidence, I have to show…because if the burden of proof shifts to you, it could be impossible for you…So what you are saying now is there’s a locomotive with box cars and the box cars are moving, and they cant be moving to infinite [sic], there has to be a locomotive, there has to be a machine. Okay, who created the machine? Because this is old physics, this is mechanical physics, the clock maker.(42) Ja, of course it’s analogy, everything is analogy. If you talk about God you can’t never [sic] say, This is God, it’s always a metaphor. So who made the locomotive?(41) We have to…you say, No, its substance in itself and it’s…where, what proof do you have? That’s still my question. There’s no proof.


Moderator to Pienaar: Is the word you’re using for God “energy”? Are you the still an agnostic?

No, again, I don’t believe in that A equals…or X = Y. So, no, if I put energy in front of existence, I’m busy with the same fallacy of creating a god of the gaps. I’m saying, okay, now for him it’s a theistic God, for others it’s that, for me it’s energy – no…energy is natural. That is what we can measure and see. I can say like…I love life, therefore I feel energy, I can measure it, people can tell me about it. That’s on creation. It’s nothing…there is nothing to say it is God. So for me it’s the mystery. If you want to give God a name, it’s the mystery, it’s a mystery, totally. And to make…give that mystery any name, I think, is to dispel or try to opt for a supernatural cause – and that’s my problem. Why do we want to explain natural things – things we have to struggle with every day, getting people you love…getting cancer, or our country with all its problems and then try to explain it by something we understand even less – a supernatural God? Because tonight Richard represents that part that says he knows God, he’s got proof for God, he knows exactly who he is, or she is. I say, please show me, I want to believe in that. If you’ve got it, I want to believe. I say, you can’t, there’s nothing. That’s why I like Eastern philosophy so much, I like Zen-Buddhism, because they don’t work with a God-view. There’s no God-view in there – they just ask how can you live life deeply now.

I just want to say, there’s my problem again. A house that is burning. Okay. You’ve got partial fingerprints…you had evidence. You said…partial rags, matchbook, partially fingerprints…everything you…That is evidence, that sounds like scientific evidence (45)…none of that (and I know it’s a metaphor for something else), but none of that you gave to us about God. That house burning, you gave evidence on it. I would believe there’s an arsonist with that evidence. But when you talk about God, there’s nothing, there’s no fingerprint – you can’t tell me how God did this. And that…it is relevant if you say the earth is only six to ten thousand years old. It is relevant…the existence of God, because then you’ll have to see some places where God is actually caught in the act making stuff or…doing things. I mean it’s a short time. We’ve got pottery made by humans older than 10 thousand years. So it is relevant. How do you think everything came to be? Describe it, because there is no evidence of a fingerprint, there’s no arsonist. That’s scientific evidence you…


Richard: Is there evidence that the universe began to exist a finite time ago?

Abel: I think so, if you cross validate everything.

Richard: Does that beginning have a cause or not?

Abel: I think so, at the theories we got at this stage.

Richard: That all my first argument…then there’s a cause of the universe.

Abel: No, no, no, there’s the jump. Yes, it started somewhere…

Richard: It’s a formally valid argument: Everything that begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefor the universe has a cause.

Abel: Okay, my problem is who caused the cause then?

Richard: That’s fine. But I’m…but before we jump to subsequent problems I was just trying to make sure whether we did or didn’t have solidarity on just the minimal syllogism itself.

Abel: Of course, that’s natural.

Richard: Okay, you do agree there’s a cause of the universe then?

Abel: Why not?

Richard: Okay, no we’re getting somewhere, I think, because what I’m suggesting is, if there’s a cause of the universe, it’s not material, spatial or temporal, because it’s the cause of those things. It can’t cause itself, so it must be, so it must be spaceless, timeless and immaterial. No isn’t that, isn’t that interesting that there is a spaceless, timeless, immaterial…it has to be incredibly powerful to cause a universe (I wouldn’t try that before breakfast in the mornings, you know, leave that up to the professionals), but don’t you think that’s impressive, that there’s some existence that is the cause of the universe?

Abel: And you say that is God?

Richard: No, no, not yet, I don’t, I’m just saying don’t you think that’s impressive – at least that. Whether we call it, whatever we want to call it, isn’t that compelling right there. That’s…

Abel: Didn’t I say the mystery, that is part of the mystery to me, that it’s unknowable…

Richard: But it’s not completely unknowable, because you know that it caused the universe – that’s known. Because you just admitted…

Abel: I know the universe started somewhere, but who caused it…

Richard: No, that’s fine. I’m not pressing you beyond what I thought you were saying. I thought I heard you say, that you agree the universe began and you agree it had a cause.

Abel: Yeah, I can see it, it’s provable.

Richard: Okay, so that part is not a mystery then? That’s not a mystery, you know that at least. That’s all…sure that I understood you, okay.


Pienaar: I still don’t get it. I think I’m South African and I’m very dumb when it comes to philosophy in the bigger sense of things, because I can’t, by the sense of me understand what does…how do you get to that jump that God is the cause of all of this. Just prove it to me. Just give me some proof – not philosophy, not some construct, just tell me this is where it happens, here we’ve got all the evidence, because all I have in front of me is what science showed me. By that I don’t say, science can proof God or disproof God – no, they [sic] can’t. They don’t, hopefully, most of them don’t even try that. They know they can’t, it’s not their mandate. That’s my problem. Everything else you told us – I understand that, that’s quite natural, its logic, it’s even provable. The mystery, what I’m referring to as an agnostic, is to the divine.


Q&A not included

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