Culture & Ethics
Faith & Science
Norm Macdonald’s God Hypothesis
The death of legendary Canadian comic Norm Macdonald last week caught North America by sad surprise. For years, the eccentric SNL star had successfully hidden the leukemia diagnosis that took his life at 61. It’s a young death for an entertainer who had an old soul. Many are mourning the loss of perhaps decades more laughs, while at the same time admiring the restraint it took to hide cancer for ten years.
Citing influences as varied as Bob Hope, Sam Kinison, and Leo Tolstoy, Macdonald had a style all his own that was nothing if not an acquired taste. He was best-known for his deliciously rambling “shaggy dog” bits, humor that didn’t seem to have a point until it did (watch the moth joke if you’re unfamiliar…and wait for it). But in more recent years, some of his more memorable moments were completely serious, about serious topics — such as, for instance, the God hypothesis.
Norm jokingly dubbed his 2012 interview with Guy MacPherson “the least funny podcast with a comedian ever.” But it may genuinely have been one of the most insightful. Norm was in a mood, and he had some venting to do, and being Norm he didn’t care how big his targets were. (Listener discretion advised, Norm’s language is R-rated, as was his wont.)
In conversation with MacPherson, an atheist, Norm casually took on the entire scientific community for “refusing to explore” what he considered the “fundamental question” of God’s existence, a question of equally intense interest to “religious people” and atheists. “Man,” he drawls, “they spend time trying to find new galaxies, as if that’s important. Since God’s an unproven thing, just a hypothesis at this point, I think it would be good to study it.” Even if they came back to announce they’d proven God’s non-existence, Norm would accept that. At least it would be something. “I don’t care what you prove. Like at least prove one of them. But try to work on the only important thing.”
MacPherson pushes back that “they can’t, in the scientific process,” because it’s not as if they found God floating around in space. What is there to test, or falsify? Scientifically, they’re bound to say it’s “unknowable.” But Norm is less than impressed with the word “unknowable.” “I don’t know when scientists started saying things were unknowable, but that’s a new one on me, because that’s not a scientific term as far as I know.”
Good question. When did scientists start moonlighting as epistemologists? Where did Stephen Hawking get the idea that he’s in any position to say God is “a fairytale”? Norm is just asking.
He further notes that the popular conception of the “scientific method” completely discounts the pivotal role of intuition. Einstein had an instinct and followed his nose. He wasn’t following a rigid five-step program, any more than Kekulédreaming about the structure of benzene in front of his fire. “That’s how important things are discovered,” Norm says. And once we recognize the role of intuition, he proposes we can’t deny the elephant in the room: Virtually “every person that has ever lived” intuits the God hypothesis, whether they admit it or not.
Created from Animals?
Norm defends his position by simply pointing out all the ways that atheists functionally construct their worldviews on suppositions that make no sense without God. For example, Norm finds it “highly irrational” to assert that man has purpose in life without God. Yet you won’t find any popular atheists saying man has no purpose. It’s not consistent, of course. If a dog or a bee can’t make its own purpose, what gives us the idea we’re any different? Norm suggests it must be because at their core, atheists likewise don’t really believe they have no more value than animals.
I personally think Norm may have been over-optimistic in this assessment. Perhaps if he’d spent less time honing his comic genius and more time reading bioethics, he would have encountered more actually consistent atheists. But he’s certainly right that “this crazy idea” persists subconsciously among those who haven’t succeeded in completely searing it over, this sense “that man has some quality to him.” “You know,” he opines, “atheists have this idea that they can’t quite resolve within themselves that man is divine, but they can’t say divine, because that means God. But they believe it. No man, I don’t care what they say, no man believes he’s equal to an insect. No man.” (This despite the fact that Norm himself thinks evolution “certainly happened.”)
I don’t know if Norm had ever heard our favorite Richard Lewontin quote, about not allowing a divine foot in the door, but I’m sure he would have said “See?” They can’t say divine. Because that means God.
However, if Dawkins is going to insist, Norm wants to know what makes him so special. After all, if everything was created by accident, then “everything” includes Richard Dawkins. “So why the f*** should I listen to him? Like why would an accident be able to convey to me how he became an accident through a series of accidents? That makes no sense to me.”
Going With the Gut
Norm repeats several times that he’s a fundamentally intuitive guy. He’s a comedian, not a philosopher. He wouldn’t claim to have “any evidence” for his strong intuition that God exists. He’s just always had it, and he’s going to stick with it, as he sticks with intuition in general, because “the mind can play tricks on you.” It’s what guides science itself. It’s what would make him immune to a “rational” case for murder.
I’d say Norm sells himself short, because intuition is its own kind of evidence. Indeed, in the language of inference to the best explanation, it’s what we would expect if the God hypothesis was true. We would expect Norm to have a certain gut feeling, nudging him in a certain direction. We would expect him to look in Jerry Seinfeld’s eyes and see “an eternal being,” which made Seinfeld crack up in the moment.
Except this time, Norm wasn’t joking.