Charles Murray has an interview at the Gene Expression weblog in which he mentions that he has been an agnostic since his teens but is growing more and more inclined to thoughts of God as he grows older. His case is common enough to be worth comment. Why is it that once men pass adolescence they get more religious as time goes by?
So far as I can tell, it’s not a sign of incipient senility. Murray still seems vigorous enough intellectually, and ditto for the adult reverts and converts to Catholicism I’ve known. I’ll let others decide whether my own status as a recent convert makes me more or less able to discuss this issue intelligently. Still, if I’m allowed to put aside my own possible precocious senile dementia, and say how things seem to me, I’d say that as we get older we rely less on close analysis of specifics and more on recognition of general patterns. In Pascal’s terms, we rely more on the intuitive and less on the mathematical mind. More particularly, we rely on our experience of the world in general to fill us in on the nature and implications of the specific situations we deal with.
We become religious as we get older for the same reason we become conservative—less for specific articulable reasons than because of a strong sense that it suits how the world really is as revealed to us by the whole of our experience. As we get older we feel more of a need for broad systematic coherence, so that the way things are in general can say something about particulars. From that perspective, the intellectual point of the concept of God is that it gives the world the greatest possible systematic coherence: it allows us to understand it, understand why it can be understood, and even know something of its purpose and orientation. Seeing things as systematic (as older people do) and seeing a pervasive systematizing principle (like God) are obviously closely related.
The thought behind most of Aquinas’s ways of proving God’s existence is that there can’t be an infinite series of explanations, whether the explanation is efficient cause, source of motion, or degree of perfection. Instead, all explanations must somehow end in some final explanation with special properties that fit it to serve as such. That line of thought seems true to our understanding of things. To give an explanation that has infinitely many steps is to give no explanation at all. To avoid such a result, and therefore make the world comprehensible from our point of view, requires something that serves as a super-explanation—that is, something very like God.
People think that such a line of thought is a sort of feel-good argument based on obfuscation and a demand that the world be cozy and comforting. It’s not, though. Rather, it’s an exploration of what’s needed ultimately for us to see our own thought as comprehensible, and therefore the conditions that must obtain for thought to be rational.