Gary Miller on God, religion, miracles and placebos

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Part I

It seems nobody knows the whereabouts of Gary Miller. In fact most people today don’t even know who he is. This obscurity is of his own choosing, for he could easily be really famous internationally if he wanted to.

Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Gary had made a name for himself through his assignments in universities and other forums around the world as a speaker on religion. Even when he was active for a few years back in the 80s, it seems he went out of his way to avoid fame: barring a booklet or two, he wrote nothing, when he could easily have dozens of books to his credit. In fact he didn’t arrange for his work to be published in any form. The few video and audio lectures that survive were all recorded by organisers or attendees at some of the events (he once famously remarked that he was not in the cassettes business).  And then he suddenly vanished from the scene, never to reappear. A pity because he would have valuable things to say about the troubled times we find ourselves in today.

I probably learned more from him than any other single person, barring the notable exception of Bertrand Russell – both are mathematicians; both very logical and careful; both possess great powers of expression; although the one ended up being an atheist while the other is a ‘believer’. Gary’s interpretation of religion is a fresh and delightful one. A recurring theme of Gary’s thought is his emphasis on reason and intellect. This can be demonstrated best by what happened in Durban in a Q&A session following a talk. When an angry questioner protested that Gary was applying human logic to divine and religious matters, Gary demanded, ‘Is there a better kind of logic? If so, tell me where I can find it.’ He absolutely loathed compromising on the quality of the argument. He once said that not infrequently he found himself compelled to say to somebody: ‘I agree with your conclusion, but your argument leaves a lot to desired.’

Like Russell, his talks are a study in how to present one’s case, even if one’s subject is outside philosophy and religion. In the following I am summarising his views (without argumentation) on some important topics. Interested parties can easily find his lectures on the internet for detailed arguments. I must declare here that the ideas are all Gary’s alone, although in some cases I have taken the liberty to paraphrase.

On testimonials: Despite being a convert, Gary detested the testimonial – the ‘How I changed’ lecture that preachers are so fond of delivering. According to him it’s a cynical tactic to win the confidence of the audience by admitting how bad one was so that they can be made to believe everything that follows. Besides, he never thought he was such a bad person to begin with, and we can only agree.

On belief: One must be able to give a good account of one’s beliefs. The Quran cites many occasions where non-Muslims justify some silly practice by the saying that their forefathers did so too. The Quran says that that’s a terrible reason to do something. But if it’s not acceptable from them, it cannot be acceptable from Muslims either, whether they replicate the behavior by word or deed.

The Quran: If there is a central theme of Gary’s apart from stress on reason and intellect, it’s the paramount position of the Quran, which for him is the great equaliser. Thanks to it, as far as the really vital guideline on all moral matters is concerned, today’s Muslim is at no disadvantage to the companions all those centuries ago. Gary concedes that while some things in the Quran may be beyond reasoning, nothing is beyond reason. That is, while one may not be able to derive say, the concept of the Hereafter by reasoning, there is nothing in it that is beyond reason.

God: A Muslim has such a subtle concept of God (Al-Lateef – The Subtle, in Quran) that He is almost not there. This affords a cure for the defeatism prevalent among many religious people (Gary thinks it very important to make a distinction between defeatism and accepting things one can’t change). On the age-old conundrum of the origin of evil when God is ‘all-good’, saying that God is all-good is anthropomorphism, according to Gary. Good is a relative term: when a lion runs down a gazelle, it’s good for the lion and bad for the gazelle. Good and bad, then, are themes of mankind or animal-kind, not those of the universe. Or God, for that matter.

‘God is not a theorem that can be proved from some more basic axioms’. God is Absolute (depends on nothing). If one starts from some assumptions and proves His existence, then one proves God not to be absolute, undoing the whole thing. In fact it is not legitimate to even ask the question, ‘Does God exist?’ – for God is the reason for all existence.

The oneness of God (or that which ultimately influences events) is a constraint, an assumption. One doesn’t prove assumptions. One starts with assumptions. This assumption is the same as saying that the universe makes sense (which is the basic assumption of all physical scientists). Just like the principle of conservation of mass and energy is a restriction: It can’t be proved; but it places a constraint on everything else. As for what God actually is, it is impossible to know, for by Gödel’s theorems it can be demonstrated that for any system to make sense, one needs something (unknown) out of the system (one needs a bottle to hold the ‘universal’ solvent, if the system is the whole universe).

Will of God: The laws of the universe are the same as the will of God. In that sense nothing happens without God’s will. But does everything happen for the best, as many religious people are fond of saying? Not necessarily. The reaction between cigarette smoke and lung tissue, for example, is a result of the laws of the universe. But the smoker brings the damage to himself. Does God create your actions then? (This was once a famous controversy among Muslims.) According to Gary, God creates your actions, yes, because they depend on the laws of the universe (His will). But he doesn’t perform them for you. Only you do.

On sins and punishment: You are not punished for your sins; you are punished by your sins. Sin is not an item on an arbitrary list of actions. It’s something that is harmful for you. One harms oneself when one indulges in such acts. Actions have consequences according to laws – moral as well as physical ones (moral ones as real as the physical ones). It’s God who gives guidance on moral matters, where the human mind is liable to sometimes falter.

(To be continued.)

1 COMMENT

  1. He was my favourite logician and speaker too. Such a pity that he decided to pursue something that he does not wishes to make public. You chose a good subject to introduce him to the new generation. Indeed he made a very profound effect on the lives of those who had the good fortune to hear him speak.

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