February 2007

Welcome back to fun stuff :)

I don’t know where to start, so I think I’ll just begin with the minor points and hopefully that will take me somewhere.

Well, any creator entity that would be empirically bounded would be as much God to us as a scientist would be to germs in a petri dish. It certainly would not be a religiously satisfying God, in fact I imagine that this entity would be much closer to religious conceptions of the Devil or demons.

While it is probably very fruitful to engage theists in a manner that will encourage discussion, I do not think we should structure our own beliefs to this end. I can’t help but feel that you seem to be trying to justify your own views in a way that would be more reconcilable with religion, and this seems to lead you to accept certain notions that you otherwise would not. Although I’m being presumptuous, that is the impression that I get, particularly from your lenience toward “proof” of God through personal revelation. Access to God’s realm is only possible if we have a medium within us that connects it to our empirical reality, a soul by any other name. Of course, it is also perfectly possible to have a religious experience and still not believe in God, or believe in a non-theistic God. If you feel that it is helpful, in discourse with the religious, to give the notion of personal proof of God some plausibility that is just fine, but I would object to your implying that skepticism of souls is the same as the “you know in your heart that God exists but deny it” argument.

“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.” Yes, if we define a deity that is logically coherent and supernatural it is not possible to prove or disprove its existence. The problem is that people often modify their ways of expressing themselves particularly for religion. I can’t prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, yet almost nobody would accuse me of exhibiting faith if I do not add “I believe” to the expression “the sun will rise tomorrow.” I think it is intellectually dishonest, at best, to let anybody define a thing such that it’s existence cannot be disproved and then concede them the right to accuse anyone dismissing that thing of having some kind of negative faith.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Occam’s razor, because its colloquial expression seems to accomplish very little, and its rigorous expression is neither intuitive emotionally nor is it an easy concept. “The simplest explanation is best.” Well, I think science is much more complicated than postulating a creator deity, if we use the common definition of “simple.” “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” on the other hand, often conflicts with the natural human tendency to assume intent and agency behind most phenomena. These are just my offhand musings.

I think your approach will be much more useful to easing the grip of religion on people than my arguments could ever be, but I feel uncomfortable with some of the concessions you are willing to make to religious thought, especially those that seem to unfairly portray some atheistic beliefs as the dogmatic equal of theism.

Well, some atheistic beliefs are the dogmatic equal of theistic beliefs. But I argue against those, too .

I agree that an empirically bounded deity wouldn’t fit the general religious concept of a deity. I think that many religious people would accept a sufficiently powerful non-supernatural creature (such as the Q, if you are familiar with Star Trek) as god, if the creature presented itself as such (and I’ll have more to say on defining God a little later).

I also agree that we should not structure our beliefs as a response to the arguments of others, but I think it is often good to express our beliefs with such arguments in mind.

My lenience toward proof through personal revelation is not a concession to religious belief. If there were a deity, and if that deity could change things in our world, and if that deity chose to make me completely believe that he existed, I would have no choice but to believe. Others might conclude that I suffer from some kind of delusion or mental problem, but I would believe, much as I might wish it otherwise. For this reason, if someone tells me that they believe in God because they can feel God’s love within them, I do not feel justified in telling them that they are definitely wrong. To do so would be to presume knowledge that I do not have, since the thing they are claiming to know through supernatural means is something that I cannot test myself.

I did not mean to imply, by the way, that skepticism about souls is equivalent to a “you know God exists but deny it” argument. I meant to say that “your personal revelation should not convince you that god exists” is a similar argument to the latter statement. I don’t feel that, in most cases, we can meaningfully argue about what another person feels deep within themselves. (But we certainly can discuss how someone should act on those feelings.)

One point where I either disagree or completely misunderstand you is where you say, “Access to God’s realm is only possible if we have a medium within us that connects it to our empirical reality, a soul by any other name.” I don’t see why, if a non-empirical deity existed, we would have to have something within us that is outside the natural in order for us to experience what I’ll call divine intervention. This sounds to me something like (if you’ll pardon a seriously flawed analogy) someone saying that fish can’t interact with things on dry land unless they have some spark of dry land within them.

We, obviously, couldn’t reach out to sense or interact with a non-empirical realm (by definition), but I don’t see any reason to deny a deity the power to interact with our realm, particularly since this deity would have created empirical reality. A deity could cause things to happen that we could sense or test (such as resurrections or personal revelations). For all I know, God makes the wind blow. It’s vanishingly unlikely, but I don’t feel that I can say it’s impossible.

About the sun rising. I’d say that it is an expression of faith to say that the sun will rise tomorrow, but since it’s a faith (in the consistency of the laws of physics) that we all share it goes unspoken and doesn’t need to be pointed out. That is a nitpicky, vocabulary-based point, but it does point out the correctness of your statement that people speak differently when they speak about religion than they do when speaking about science.

Now we get to what may be the real sticky point. “I think it is intellectually dishonest, at best, to let anybody define a thing such that it’s existence cannot be disproved and then concede them the right to accuse anyone dismissing that thing of having some kind of negative faith.” I have two thoughts about this. I’ll give you the short one first. If something is defined such that I can’t prove it doesn’t exist, I don’t feel I can say it doesn’t exist. All I can do is respond to arguments that it does exist.

My second thought is, I think, far more important. I think the crux of the statement is the phrase “let anyone define a thing such that its existence cannot be disproved.” You already know that I won’t say it’s impossible to prove that a deity exists because there may be proofs I haven’t thought of. But that aside, let’s look at what kind of definition of a deity I allow.

Most theists don’t think that it is impossible to prove that there is a god. Many of them think that they have proofs, many others just haven’t given it sufficient thought. When I have a conversation with a theist, one thing I like to do is find out whether they believe they can prove that their god exists. If they don’t and simply believe on faith, then that part of the conversation is over. They can’t convince me with their faith, so I don’t believe in their god and they have no right to accuse me of negative faith. If I were, instead, to say that their god does not exist after they admitted that their belief is based on feelings alone, then I either need to be able to prove that there is no god or I have to say that my disbelief is based on a feeling that I think trumps their feeling. I think that’s a philosophical mistake.

Now let’s take the much more common case where the person thinks that the existence of God is provable. I would proceed to ask what proof there is that God exists. You and I both know that whatever evidence they have will have to either fail under examination or turn into a statement of faith. If it fails, they haven’t proven their case. If it turns into faith, we’re back to the previous paragraph.

So what this boils down to is, if someone admits that the existence of a deity can’t be proven or disproven, then there is no burden of proof. If they define god as provable, then the burden of proof is on them. So the only way the burden of proof falls on me is if I say that there is no deity. I see no philosophical necessity for inviting that burden.

But, in a way, much of this discussion falls away when we look at what you and I are talking about when we use the word “God.” At the beginning of your letter you touched on the subject of what concept of God would be satisfying to a religious person, and this brings us to another reason that I do not say God doesn’t exist (and it’s a reason that I don’t usually like to get into because religious people tend to freak out about it for some reason).

By and large, when people use the word “God,” they really don’t know what they are talking about. They can’t define God’s properties in a coherent, consistent way. So how can I say that “God” doesn’t exist when, frankly, we don’t know what “God” is in the first place? You and I are talking about God, but we’re using a definition most religious people likely wouldn’t accept, so we haven’t exhausted the topic.

This is why I sometimes like to ask people to define God for me, particularly if their proof for his existence is something that can’t be empirically tested. It generally leads nowhere.

So, to sum up big time: 1) I don’t say it would be impossible to prove that a deity exists because the concept of deity is gigantic and there might be some way to prove that something we’d refer to as a deity or creator exists. 2) I say “I am not convinced that there is a god” (instead of “god does not exist”) because I cannot rule out the possibility of the existence of a supernatural being that a) might not be detectable and b) we haven’t even really defined.

I will, however, gladly say that many, many, many specific attempted descriptions of God are of entities that don’t exist. And I will also say that, even if there is a deity, the bulk of religion on this planet is likely very close to entirely incorrect, so far as metaphysical matters are concerned.

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 12:47 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: About atheism, Defining god, Discussion, Strong atheism

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