February 2007

Well, then let’s make a preemptive strike and eliminate those definitions of god which include contradictory elements before they are even formulated. These will simply be nice boundaries, a starting framework, so to speak. I also think there is less disagreement about the definition of god than you suggest, and that the parts most widely shared are usually also the ones that are problematic. I’m not sure that the more plausible, or I should say less implausible, definitions of god somehow validate the more obscene ones, nor do I feel the need to be politically correct and lenient towards religious views in general because some religious views are benign. Reportedly, when Dalai Lama was asked “What if neuroscience comes up with information that directly contradicts Buddhist philosophy?” he responded “Then we would have to change the philosophy to match the science.” Quite an admirable sentiment, but not all religions are equal. I think it is self-evident that some religions are worse than others, just as some opinions are worse than others. I feel no compulsion to engage in moral equivalence and regard deism and theism as equals, they aren’t.

I think the universe exhibits certain properties which can be formulated as mathematical principles. Pi is one of those formulations, but it is not a distinct object that exists independently of the aspect of the universe it describes.

Well ok, my turn. Let’s talk about rabbits, and not aliens. I’m, for whatever reason, not all together in my head and I imagine that there is a rabbit crawling around in my pants. So, I check it out, and find that there really isn’t a rabbit in my pants. Obviously, this does not mean that rabbits don’t exist, but it does show that the specific rabbit I was referring to doesn’t exist. Same with aliens, but not the same with god. Assuming we are talking of monotheism, the subject of discussion is always one and the same god entity. So, when you say: “well, just because we can show that this version of god doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that another version doesn’t exist” it’s more like talking about whether that imaginary rabbit in my pants has six tails, or five eyes, or thirty claws, and when I say “but look, there is no six-tailed five-eyed and thirty-clawed rabbit in my pants,” the response “ahaaa, but you didn’t check your pants for the six-tailed five-eyed and thirty-one-clawed rabbit” somehow doesn’t impress upon me that I ought to check my pants again for this new rabbiteity, and the next one after that. It seems to me what you are essentially saying is that we can never disprove the existence of a deity because it is always possible to invent a new definition of a deity. I’m not sure what you expect me to conclude from this.

Well, I agree with this statement entirely “There would always be a non-supernatural explanation for the behavior of such a deity,” but this is precisely what I find problematic, and I can’t see why, particularly in light of what seems to me your strong preference for Occam’s razor, you seem to regard this as somehow a defense of a deity. If you accept Occam’s razor, without compromise, than postulating a supernatural entity in the face of weird natural phenomena is always a worse explanation than a natural explanation, because a supernatural realm is always an entity that is not necessary for the explanation of a natural phenomenon. This means that there cannot be an empirical evidence for a deity, ever, nevermind empirical proof. We seem to be in complete agreement on the problem a deity would have in showing himself through natural means, but I cannot figure out why you seem to regard this as a defense of the existence of a supernatural god.

“By the way, I’m really enjoying this conversation. I hope it’s not driving you nuts!”

I’m already nuts, and the nuttier I feel, the more fun I have, so drive away.

I think we’re getting very close to settling this here, which is kind of exciting. It’s fine with me if we discard self-contradictory definitions of a deity.

It appears to me that there are a great many definitions of deity out there because, for example, different groups of Christians can’t even necessarily agree on the nature of God (for example, does God consider good works to be important or only expressions of devotion — and I’d say that these are significant distinctions in that they can be used as a foothold to examine other described properties of the deity). There is also the problem of whether we can meaningfully say that two religions who ascribe different activities to God (such as writing or not writing a holy book) believe in the same God. Christians, Jews, and Muslims will generally say that they do worship the same deity (the God of Abraham), but often their descriptions of God are so divergent that it seems to me to be overly charitable to grant this. Particularly when Christians can’t even agree on who can be called a Christian. And when we look at the beliefs of individuals instead of those of organizations, definitions of God vary even more, even within Christianity (I say this based on personal observation only).

This is why I disagree that we are always talking about the same entity when we are discussing monotheism. Some of the definitions are mutually exclusive.

I agree that not all religions are equal, by the way. I also agree that deism and other forms of theism are not equal. An aside: there is also the point of view that all religions are reactions to the “experience of the divine” at some point in the past and therefore contain a grain of truth even if they are incorrect in all the details. I haven’t a clue how I’d prove that isn’t true, and I’ve heard it espoused by some people who say that they are Christians.

Now, for the rabbit in your pants (a sentence I never imagined I’d be typing). The pants rabbit is a different animal than aliens and god. You can check your pants for rabbits; humanity might some day be able to check every planet in the universe for aliens; we can’t check for god in any way I can think of. So the idea of checking your pants for a variety of rabbit types is a bit of a false analogy, since we can’t check for the existence of god. Or, rather, we can at best say what kind of animal isn’t in your pants. And if you were to respond that the reason I couldn’t find the rabbit was that it is an invisible, immaterial rabbit, I couldn’t prove you wrong, although I’d suspect you were bananas.

You ask what I expect you to conclude from the fact that there is always a new possible definition of a deity. The conclusion I draw from this is that even if I can conclude that every deity ever described by humans does not exist, I can’t say that there is no deity out there. This works for aliens the same way — rule out every alien every described by a human, and there still may be aliens. Your rabbit does not fare so well — check for him, and if he’s not there, he’s not there (assuming the normal definition of “rabbit”).

You are right that I have a strong preference for Occam’s razor. I agree that Occam’s razor seems to completely rule out the necessity of a deity. However, this is not universally compelling proof that there is no deity because, a) the razor is a guideline, not a rule, and b) people with a different view of probability will apply it differently than I will.

Now let’s get into a really technical bit: “We seem to be in complete agreement on the problem a deity would have in showing himself through natural means, but I cannot figure out why you seem to regard this as a defense of the existence of a supernatural god.” I don’t regard this as a defense of the existence of a supernatural god. Rather, it is a defense of the impossibility of disproving the existence (as opposed to the likelihood) of a supernatural god. I don’t think god exists, but it is, so far as I can see, impossible to prove that god does not exist, so I do not say that god does not exist.

Life would be greatly simplified if, when someone asked, “Do you believe God exists?” I could answer “No” because I could demonstrate that the deity the questioner has in mind could not exist. I do not feel justified in doing so because:

1) I don’t know what god they have in mind, and often they don’t know either,

2) When I argue against a specific definition of god, people very often just start refining their definition to get around my objections.

3) I don’t think such a response would honestly convey my opinion.

Both #1 and #2 may be evidence of belief without a good basis, and I recognize that, but it doesn’t make my philosophical standpoint any easier. You and I could pretty easily prove to each other that the likelihood of a deity is vanishingly small. But this proof might not be accepted by those who make different assumptions about reality than you and I do, and since I can’t prove that my assumptions are correct (particularly since they include an assumption that there is nothing supernatural), I would feel arrogant acting as if I am definitely correct.

You sound like you do not have this discomfort, so you feel justified in saying that there is no god.

Posted on February 4, 2007 at 9:13 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Defining god, Discussion, Strong atheism

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