Mr. g

Mr. g is God, but small g god. Probably not the one you were taught about. He is the protagonist of a novel carrying his name written by Alan Lightman.

Right off, I’ll say that Mr. g, the book, worked for me because he is the god I have come to believe exists. If I had to explain him to you or hang a label on this god, I would say look up “Deism.”

Deism is something I have so far only touched lightly on here in the past. It is the belief in a supreme being,  a creator, who could – but chooses not to – intervene in the universe.

It is not a new belief. It was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that took in a number of the founding fathers of the United States. They accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected the belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

This “fictional God” (we could have another discussion about that term) exists in a Void before any creation along with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva. I cannot explain who they represent or even why they exist. I understand why the Creator couldn’t have creator parents but…

Mr g is omnipotent but not omniscient. He creates universes. He put creatures into one. And then he lets it go on its own. (I was going to say he lets it evolve but that is a troublesome word.) It is trial and error. Though he has created rules/laws for these universes, he is surprised by what occurs.

There is also Belhor and his toadies living in the Void. Is B the Devil or just a way to question and challenge him and allow him to explain things?

The book actually avoids outright talk of religion, though the idea of a soul or something that lives on beyond the mortal life is brought up by Uncle Deva. But, like Deism, if a religion, it is one whose followers believe in a God who “created the universe, established its rules of behavior, set it going, left, and
hasn’t been seen since.”

I depart from that description in that I believe that his God can and may occasionally interfere with the course of human events, as Mr. g does once in the book.

A creator God as all-powerful but not all-knowing is probably not a comfortable fit for most readers.

Lightman also wrote Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of stories that are dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he ponders in his waking lifetime, relativity and physics.

Each dream/story explores another possibility. In one dream, time is circular and we are fated to repeat the good and bad over and over. But in another one, time stands still and people cling desperately to what they have in fear of it going away.

Lightman teaches in the humanities at MIT and his books span science, theology, and philosophy. Sometimes, as with Mr. g,  he both ignores and observes the questions that arise when those three things cross paths.

Albert Einstein once said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”


Shadows of Doubt

Image: NASA

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not Omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
— Epicurus

I wasn’t sure the video I watched and linked here would remain online when I first encountered it last year. In fact, when I checked again recently it was taken down, but it keeps being uploaded. As of April 2023, all three episodes were on Youtube. If it’s gone again, do a search. The part I am writing about here is part one of the BBC series by Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief.

This part is titled “Shadows of Doubt.” The series is about atheism but what caught me in this section was that Miller visited the site of the absent Twin Towers in NYC to consider the religious implications of 9/11.

I don’t label myself as an atheist. I would consider myself a deist. That’s more of a topic in itself, but it is defined as s the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of God, but that is accompanied by the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge. There is a God who chooses not to be involved in our lives.

Jonathan Miller says he is rather “reluctant” to call himself an atheist because “it hardly seems worthwhile having a name for something which scarcely enters my thoughts at all.”

In “Shadows of Doubt”, we find Miller in the Reading Room at the British Museum describing the purpose of the series. Then he moves to New York City and states that the attacks on 9/11 were “inconceivable without religion”.

There follows a brief montage of people explaining their atheism: Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, Polly Toynbee, Gore Vidal, Steven Weinberg, and Colin McGinn. McGinn says that the word “belief” covers diverse things – from “I believe there is a computer in front of me” to “I believe in democracy.” Questions of belief come up only when one is faced with a question that is debatable. Religion and politics are examples. Miller points out that politics differs from religion in being about what ought to be, while religion primarily deals with what is the case.

The series goes back to the evidence of the first “unbelievers” in Ancient Greece and brings it up to modern theories around why some people have always tended to have doubt and also why some people believe in mythology and magic.

The series includes extracts from interviews with various academic luminaries including Richard Dawkins, Steve Weinberg, Denys Turner, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett. The series also includes many quotations from the works of atheists, agnostics, and deists,

The person who originally uploaded it says they did so because “this needs to be available as a shining light of the historicity of reason midst the depths and oceans of media absurdity and religious propaganda. So few representatives of atheism provide a compelling and earnest account for unbelief, let alone with the lucidity and intellectual vigor of Jonathan Miller. He is sincere and moving in this attempt to explain and understand the origins of the truth of disbelief of religious superstition and faith.”

In the United States, the series was shown as A Brief History of Disbelief in 2007 in three 60-minute sections: “Shadows of Doubt”, “Noughts and Crosses” and “The Final Hour.” There was also a series of supplementary programs made from material that did not fit into the program as “The Atheism Tapes.”

I have been a fan of Jonathan Miller since I saw the TV version of his book The Body in Question where he is more in his medical doctor role. he is interested in so many topics and makes all of them understandable.  I enjoyed his Darwin for Beginners which he co-authored. He also has a beautiful art book, On Reflection, about how painters represent the effects of light on various reflective surfaces.

Science, Faith and the Invention of Air

He invented air.

All right, Joseph Priestly couldn’t invent air – or oxygen. He might have discovered it, but Steven Johnson called his book about Priestly The Invention of Air and that’s a better title than “The Discovery of Oxygen.”

But the story is more than the oxygen part that you learned in science class.  It’s ” A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.”

I particularly like that the book suggests that Priestley’s most important discovery wasn’t oxygen but rather carbon dioxide.

Plus, I am always looking for connections, so I was taken in early in this book when Johnson wonders how much of the Enlightenment we might owe to coffee.

We start at the London Coffee House in 1765. Priestley is talking with his fellow scientific thinkers. This was an age of change from pubs and liquor to a coffeehouse culture. Many drunken conversations became sober ones stimulated by caffeine.

Johnson likes to mix historical periods and disciplines. In his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, he mixed studies of the brain and pop culture and argued that things like video games don’t make you stupid; they make you smarter.

In another of his books, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, he examines the great cholera epidemic of 19th-century London through the lenses of bacteriology, epidemiology and history.

I heard Johnson interviewed and he said he was struck in reading the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that there were five references to Benjamin Franklin and three to George Washington, but there were 52 to Joseph Priestley.

There’s an “Intermezzo” section to the book that goes back to 300 million B.C. – to the advent of life on earth during the brief Carboniferous era when plant life was in its heyday with giant trees and leaves. All of this led to a rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere and changed our air, and all the subsequent decaying vegetative stored energy became the coal that Priestly literally lived on and that fueled his industrial age. Big circle connected.

The end of the book brings Priestley to America after our Revolution, where he connects science to American politics.

“The American experiment was, literally, an experiment, like one of Priestley’s elaborate concoctions in the Fair Hill lab. The political order was to be celebrated not because it had the force of law, or divine right, or a standing army behind it. Its strength came from its internal balance, or homeostasis, its ability to rein in and subdue efforts to destabilize it.”

This brings us to the subtitle of the book – “faith, revolution, and the birth of America.”

Priestley the theologian took his scientific perspective, mixed in some materialism, and wrote tracts about his views. Thomas Jefferson admired his writings and his stand against the worship of saints and the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson gave Priestley credit for developing a Deistic faith that did not include ‘supernatural” beliefs. It had a strong impact on many of the founding fathers.

As President, Jefferson occasionally attended church services, but he was not a member of any Christian church and he refused to proclaim any national days of prayer or thanksgiving.

Jefferson said he was a “Materialist” (letter to Short, Apr. 13, 1820) and a “Unitarian” (letter to Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825). Jefferson rejected the Christian doctrine of the “Trinity” (letter to Derieux, Jul. 25, 1788), as well as the doctrine of an eternal Hell (letter to Van der Kemp, May 1, 1817).

Jefferson specifically named Joseph Priestly as one who was “the basis of my own faith” (letter to Adams, Aug. 22, 1813).

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “By the end of the 18th-century, deism had become a dominant religious attitude among upper-class Americans, and the first three presidents of the United States held this conviction, as is amply evidenced in their correspondence.”

Benjamin Franklin was a friend of his fellow inventor, Priestley, and was a Deist who opposed the doctrine of the Trinity. In addition to his work as a scientist and diplomat, Franklin helped to create the University of Pennsylvania, a nonsectarian institution of higher education.

Bringing Priestly into our own Information Age, Johnson emphasizes Priestley’s openness in the way that we talk about Open Source and Open Everything. Priestly shared his work, data, and observations to the point that it probably lost him some credit for discoveries because of this belief in the “free flow of information.”

See also, the Russell Shorto review of this book at