February 2007

I think I made a mistake when I chose the word supernatural to describe what I meant. What I actually meant was a realm that exists outside the boundaries of empirical reality and is independent of matter and physical laws by definition, and thus is not accessible to human experience in any way, certainly not in any direct way. I don’t know if you’ve seen the videos of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference (or, perhaps, maybe even attended it), but I’ll use one of the topics raised there as an example. If our brains are somehow connected to platonic forms, or perhaps a priori truths, through quantum entanglement, this connection would still, in my view, be from both ends empirical.

The theistic God, and any entity if it is to be labeled the Creator, must exist in the realm beyond the empirical if that entity is to preserve the properties that would entitle it to be labeled God. I contend, and please say if you disagree, that if this realm indeed exists it is not accessible to humans in any direct way, and so any evidence for it or an entity of it must appear to humans through the medium of empirical reality.

Which brings me to the crux. If you accept that this non-empirical realm exists (or even possibly exists) and cannot be accessed by humans directly, there does not seem to be a means by which you can accept or dismiss evidence for existence or non-existence of God without resorting to value judgments. How would you argue against my belief that everything I see around me is evidence for God, by saying there are more reasonable explanations? You yourself have mentioned the enormously low probability of life, let alone consciousness, arising in the universe. All I would need to be justified in belief in the Creator deity is to judge the probability of the existence of the non-empirical realm to be slightly higher than the natural formation of a life-inducing universe. If we accept the premises, doing so would not seem unreasonable to me.

If you accept that this non-empirical realm exists and can be accessed directly by humans, however, you would have no counter to a believer’s claim that they experienced God and we are only atheists because we have not had such an experience.

It seems to me we are left with two options. You can claim that the probability that the non-empirical realm exists is smaller than the probability of this universe, with life and human consciousness, arising, or that such a realm cannot exist to begin with. Either way, it seems to me, would perfectly justify my saying “There is no God” by any rational standard. I’m taking as given that an empirically bounded entity cannot have the properties that would entitle it to be labeled God and remain logically coherent.

P.S.: This is getting kind of eerily serious, but I think it will be interesting to see where we end up with this…..

Let’s start at the end of your note and take as a given than God can’t be an empirically bounded entity. I do not necessarily agree with this statement because it really boils down to how we define “God,” and I think there are theoretical candidates that could be called “creator” but still be empirical. But taking this as a given will help move our discussion along.

Now, back to the top of your letter. I agree that humans would not be able to access this theoretical realm (I’ll call it “God’s realm”), and that any evidence for that realm must present itself empirically. I also agree that accepting or rejecting evidence from that realm boils down to a value judgment. But here’s where you may be misunderstanding my position — I think that’s okay.

Value judgments in the form of “is proposition A more likely than proposition B” come up all the time in science. I grant you, most of them are not this huge, but I think the only difference is magnitude.

How would I argue against someone who said that God is the most reasonable explanation? Well, I’d probably ask some questions to find out if the person really believes this statement (that is, that they think God is really the most reasonable explanation and not just the explanation they like most). Next, I would ask the person whether they would change their mind if science produced evidence that (for example) life was actually not unlikely at all. If the person, after this discussion, still considers God the best explanation for the universe, then I will accept that. We simply disagree. Of course, definitely stating this deity’s existence and assigning qualities to this deity are still a matter of faith in that they have not been proven.

You also point out that there is no counter to someone saying that they believe in God because they have experienced God’s realm. That’s true — this is what I meant in a previous note when I talked about proof of God through personal revelation. I can’t argue against such a thing, but it’s also not compelling proof to those who have not had a revelation. The best I could do is argue that what they experienced is likely something more mundane than God’s realm, but I can’t prove it and such arguments generally go the same place that the anti-atheist argument “you know in your heart that God exists but deny it” goes (that is, nowhere).

Finally, let’s look at whether one is justified in saying “There is no God” by the standards you propose. If the reason one is making that statement is that one considers the possibility of a deity to be vanishingly small, then I would not favor making that statement. The reason is that we are dealing with a subject that is not empirical, so I don’t think we can trust empirical methods (such as scientific likelihood) to come to conclusions about it. When we come right down to it, if there is a deity or a God’s realm, you and I don’t know a thing about it — any statements we make about its probability of existence are educated guesses, so I shy away from acting like they are more than that. At best, we can make statements about what such a realm is not (because certain qualities would lead to logical contradictions, for example).

This may all sound philosophically wimpy, but there are pragmatic reasons for my thinking in this way. For example:

1) If I say that there is no deity even though I can’t “prove” it, it could be said that I have faith that there is no deity. I don’t want to go there.

2) I place no value on proving that there is or is not a deity. However, I place a lot of value on helping people sort through their religious beliefs and make sure that those beliefs are consistent and non-contradictory. The possibility of a deity says almost nothing about that deity’s characteristics, and it’s in these details that I prefer to hold discussions with theists because such things can be logically tested with relative ease. It’s a big jump from “there might be a deity” to “the Christian God exists,” particularly since very few Christians I’ve met have a good working knowledge of their own concept of God (as evidenced in the difficulty they often had defining good and evil).

3) Many people who say that God is the most reasonable explanation don’t have much familiarity with how Occam’s razor works. One example of this is that they often think that Occam would prefer one all-powerful deity to many less-powerful deities (as in Greek mythology). Globally applying their misuse of Occam might lead one to believe that (for example) it is more likely that the pyramids were built by one giant guy than by thousands of normal guys. I think that helping people learn how to use tools like this does more to advance the cause of science than trying to argue against deity as a concept, and I secretly hope that as people learn to use these tools they will realize that God is not necessary.

4) Even if I agreed 100% with your argument that there is no God, I’d say that the argument is inaccessible to your average person without a lot of discussion, and that this discussion would ultimately almost never be beneficial to the theist. Since I say that I am not convinced there is a deity, it is up to religious people to prove to me that there is a deity, and I believe that the exercise of attempting this proof is excellent experience for theists, many of whom have never really thought about why they believe there is a deity.

5) The bulk of people I talk to have no logical reason to believe in a deity (even if they think they do). Their arguments are an attempt to justify their own beliefs, as opposed to the real reason that they believe in the first place. I think that there is huge value in getting people to admit that they believe in a deity only through faith. This essentially brings God into the camp of “personal truth” (as opposed to “compelling truth”), and it’s a lot easier to build tolerance and acceptance of others when we realize that everyone has personal truths and that none of them are more valuable than anyone else’s. (This is a topic we could go on at great length about, but I think you see what I mean.)

As a final point, I don’t have anything against religion in general. It’s intolerance and ignorance that I prefer to battle.

Whew! Big response from me. I hope it was worth the wait. I look forward to hearing from you!

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 12:29 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Defining god, Discussion

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