I think it’s fine to structure our beliefs in response to arguments from others, but I do not think we should structure our beliefs, in particular standards and vocabulary, to accommodate any particular dogma. I would argue that there is a qualitative, not just quantitative, difference in the meaning of the word “faith” as it it used to describe belief in the physical laws or tomorrow’s sunrise and a belief in a supernatural being or the celestial teapot-rise. Sometimes it is necessary to employ a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty to have a fruitful exchange with people who use a different system of discourse, but one must be careful not to turn temporary compromise into surrender.
“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.”
I came up with a brilliant response to this, but I was chased off before I could finish grinding sand into all the seafood. In retrospect, poking the shopkeeper with my trident was probably a bad idea.
If the access of a person to god is not accomplished through a supernatural medium, i.e. soul, that access would be an empirical experience and therefore observable and, with adequate technology, reproducible. Why should we refrain from disputing such a “proof” of god? Why can’t I say to a person whom I believe to be experiencing a delusion or hallucination, and can offer scientific data to attest to that, that what they are experiencing is not real? There are people who have voices in their heads and see hallucinations, and we usually try to help people make the distinction between what they imagine and what is real. Why should god get leniency that we do not grant mirages or personal voices? If the god revelation is something that happens physiologically, we could create a god pill (or, hopefully, the 72 virgins pill) and all have our own personal experience of god. This, however, would be neither proof nor even an argument for the existence of god.
The only grounds on which a personal god revelation would be indisputable is if we have a direct access to god through the soul, or some kind of supernatural medium. Otherwise, I would argue that such a revelation is neither truly personal nor should it be immune from criticism.
There cannot be an empirical proof for the existence of God, only evidence based on which a logical proof can perhaps be formulated. Such evidence, of course, would have to be so extravagant as to crush Occam’s razor and a few physical laws to boot. Of course, if the laws of logic actually arise from physical laws, then there cannot be a logical proof of god either. This would not mean that god does not exist, just that he is unprovable. We are, of course, talking about the god of deism and not theism. I’ll stop here before I confuse myself.
This may be a discussion for another time, but I don’t know if I agree with you that there is a difference in the word “faith” when used to refer to deities or sunrises. For example, to me it is a matter of faith — something believed without proof — that the laws of physics do not change and that my perceptions are (at least in some way) a reflection of reality.
When discussing deities, I think we have to adjust our vocabulary to accommodate those to whom we are having a discussion. Otherwise we could find ourselves in a discussion of corn where I mean maize and someone else means wheat. When a Christian says “God,” I assume they mean the Christian god and are saddling themselves with all the attached philosophical baggage. When you say “God,” I assume you mean something much more narrowly defined. Being able to make statements about a deistic god doesn’t help us when discussing a Christian god.
You are right that access to a god that is not accomplished by a connection to the supernatural (on the human’s part) must be done through the empirical realm. You are also right that you can legitimately dispute such proofs. The problem is that if one says that God acts through nature (as Catholics do), then proving that what a religious person claims is an act of God is just an act of nature does nothing to disprove their point. We’re back to the “everything in nature is proof of God” argument and what an individual will accept as sufficient proof of the supernatural.
You say that we “usually try to help people make the distinction between what they imagine and what is real” and you are right. The problem is that feelings of faith are generally closer to raw emotions than they are to obvious delusions. It is possible to argue that Sally doesn’t really love Bob because Bob’s a jerk, and maybe you could convince Sally that she is just mistaking need for love, but then we get into the mess of trying to define what love is in the first place. The feeling of experiencing God’s love or of “knowing” that there just has to be a creator might be the same sort of beast, but I don’t know because I don’t experience it so I have trouble arguing that others aren’t experiencing it.
If we could identify the state of mind that equals feeling God’s love, then you are right that we could probably recreate it medically. But this does not prove that feelings of God’s love are not caused by God any more than a magician bending spoons proves that Uri Geller is a magician and not a psychic (although it sure would lead me to suspect that).
I’d say that a personal revelation of god is indisputable only to the person who experiences it and only in the sense that there is no evidence I can produce that will change their mind. It is not immune to criticism, but such criticism will have no impact on the person who received the revelation. Can this kind of thing be said of mental illnesses as well? Sure.
I agree that I cannot think of any empirical proof for the existence of a supernatural creator that would be unquestionable. I don’t agree that the laws of logic arise from the physical laws, because logic can exist without the physical (as can mathematics). You are also right that the deistic god is unprovable (and, I would add, non-refutable).
The deistic god piece is worth looking at. It seems to me that if I can’t prove or disprove a god that took a hike right after creation, I also can’t prove or disprove one that left a year, or a million years, or a billion years after creation. If god decided his work was done and left in 2004, I would be similarly out of luck. Just a thought.
Of course, anything related to a deistic god doesn’t do us much good today. There aren’t a lot of deists around (which is too bad, because I think deism is pretty defensible). Bummer.
In: About atheism, Defining god, Discussion, Strong atheism