Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Some Notes on Theism

I'm prompted to write this post as a general account of my opinions about the existence of God in response to an exchange with Aaron on Sam's blog: Comments. In particular I wanted to respond to this comment by Arron: "At the very core, Christianity is nothing more than following Christ. The word itself means simply one who follows Christ's teachings. All of the sacraments, all of the ritual, all of the dogma is man-made artifice that is at times either helpful or harmful to a given individual or even to the world at large."

There's nothing new in what follows; it's just a summary of my views on the subject of theism in the above context.

I don't find anything wrong with following the teaching of any particularly wise person, but is it really likely that all the professed teachings of Jesus were all his own work? Even if it could be shown that many of the teachings of Jesus were attributable to his followers and biographers that wouldn't necessarily diminish the wisdom inherent in the teachings.

But anything in addition to this is where my problem with Christianity, and theism in general begins.

First, to make Jesus anything more than simply a mortal teacher requires the presupposition of God. This presupposition is at the heart of all the main monotheistic religions. Without an initial God everything else fails, theistically. Theists sometimes argue that atheists aren't in a position to comment on some aspects of theology that they haven't studied, but without the presupposition of God the theology is worthless.

I find no rational reason to presuppose God. I have not seen one single argument supporting theism that doesn't presuppose this, for any of the God religions. And this brings me to the degree of my 'agnosticism' or 'atheism' as discussed with Aaron. The metaphysical idea that a God is one possible cause of everything is fine, but that's all it is, an idea, a concept, with no more weight than any other metaphysical idea. I could equally presuppose two Gods, and infinite number of Gods, or no Gods, a single once-only universe from nothing, a cyclical single universe, multiple parallel universes, metaphysical ideas that have mathematical support and those that don't, and even pure fantasy universes - metaphysically, anything goes. So, in response to Aaron, I am 'agnostic' to the extent that the God hypothesis is one of many, and I am 'atheistic' to the extent that I don't find the God hypothesis a particularly convincing one. I'm so unconvinced I'm prepared to accept the label 'atheist'.

Without presupposing God it becomes necessary to say why one would think there is a God.

All the so called proofs of the existence of God, the ontological, teleological, cosmological, and other 'logical' arguments are all based on some unsupportable premise, that is usually based on some human intuitive requirement that there should be some cause, that it should be intelligent, and that it should be loving. God is made in the image of the best of what we would like to be, not we in his image.

Terms such as 'infinite' and 'perfect' are often used in relation to God. These are mere concepts that are useful in describing something beyond what we can see, measure or reach. There is no reality to them, as far as we know. There's no good reason that they are attributes of or have anything to do with God.

Discussions about the 'probability' of any of these possible ideas, and in this context that there might or might not be a God, are metaphysical speculations and have no mathematical basis to take them any further. In order to calculate probabilites about God's existence we need information we just don't have.

Some theists don't require proof or evidence or probabilistic likelihood, since they find some ideas 'obvious', when considering these issues. For example, it's 'obvious' there must be a 'loving', 'intelligent', 'omnipotent', ..., creator. To such a theist I'd ask the following. How would you know that? How many universes have you witnessed being created to come to that 'obvious' conclusion, deductively or inductively? What experiences do you have, on the scale of universes, that make you think this or any universe requires a creator at all? An as for 'His' attributes, how would you know what they were? Revelation? Well, revelation presupposes there's a God to do the revealing, as opposed to there having been a number of fallible humans through the ages that have misunderstood, willfully lied, or been deluded about revelatory events - that presupposition again?

Another approach theists sometimes take is with respect to what might be called 'ways of knowing'. When all the rational arguments have been put forward - basically saying there's no evidence or proof that God exists and so we should act as if he doesn't - theists have been known to question the appropriateness of these arguments, by questioning the ways in which we can know things. All I want to say for now on this is that the best and most useful ways of knowing consist of supporting our personal experiences with rational critical and sceptical thought and, when appropriate and possible, employing what is commonly know as the scientific method. I accept that when we follow this path the best we can hope for is the accumulation of common experiences that give us some grasp of how things work, and to a limited extent why they work; but I also accept that in no way does that lead us to any ultimate and absolute truth about anything; it only provides us with a degree of confidence. What about meditation and other 'spiritual' ways of knowing? As far as I can see, moving to what is essentially a different mind-state is no different than chewing on magic mushrooms - anything goes; and there's no reason to suppose anything valuable or real is being revealed.

Yet another idea that theism embraces whole heartily, and which is also a necessity for some non-theists, is the requirement for purpose or meaning. I think this idea is often behind the 'obvious' discussed above. But there is no requirement that the universe, or any part of it (i.e. us), should have any purpose or meaning. This need that some people have for there to be purpose and meaning in the universe at all is a quirk of human nature, akin to the need to bite ones nails or pick ones nose or scratch an itch. Can I prove this? No, but the parallels are sufficient to explain it without conjuring up an agent such as God.

Now, I can accept a 'concept', call it God if you wish, as an aspiration, a goal to which we would like to aim; but it's entirely a human construct - it certainly isn't theistic in the usual sense, and not even deistic. In that respect it's a form of Humanism. I think that this is what some versions of Christianity have come to be, though I can't understand why there remains the insistence on the truth of, say, the resurrection, or even the continued association with Christ.

Much of this aspiration for the unreachable perfection is fine. But because we can't actually reach it we have to settle for less. And that 'less' that each person settles for is subjective. I don't have a problem with different individuals or groups of people deciding that they think they should live by certain rules, constructing their own morality - I've seen no evidence or good argument for objective morality. And I think it makes sense that as a society (and collections of societies) that we should agree that compromises have to be made - we can't all have our own particular moral codes enforced just as we choose. The problem with religion in this respect is that it has aimed for the heady heights of the infinite and the perfect, and has decided there is a real God, and has then interpreted its own subjective moral codes as being determined by this fictitious character. All theistic religions, and sects within religions, and individuals within sects, all have their own take on what God is, to what extent he interacts with us, to what extent he commands us, or requires us to worship him, etc. Religion is probably the most variable and subjective of human enterprises, in terms of what is believed, and yet often its adherents claim to have access to absolute and invariant truth. This is pure nonsense.

Take any individual, whether it be Jesus, his apostles, Mohammed, the Pope, or anyone claiming to be divine or to have been in touch with some divine being, or to have received a message, a revelation; take any of them; any claim they have made can be accounted for by down to earth explanations. But, you might say, at least some of the claims could be true. Well, how would you know? How, in fact, do you distinguish between a truthful claim about the divine and any of the many consequences of simple human frailty: mistakes, dreams, delusions, lies, intuitions, group-think, etc. There is no known way of making such a distinction, and since ultimately all supposed sources of divine information result from such claims, one way or another, they must all be seriously suspect, at the very least. Add to the shear variety the fact that no matter which religion you follow, and no matter how dedicated you are and to what extent you submit yourself and obey the commands and pray, there's not a damn bit of difference made in this world. From the most pious to the most 'sinful' - not a jot of difference that anyone has demonstrated.

All that pretty much takes care of my view about God. I think it's a strong case. I'd be happy to expand on any individual points, or to consider any angles I haven't already. I'd even believe in God if I thought there was sufficient reason.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


This is a link worth following, as a follow up to the Expelled movie: Expelled Exposed.

For associated story see here,... and here.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Power of Extremist Prayer

Perhaps extremists of other faiths could learn from controversial Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake. Why bother going to the trouble of organising terror campaigns when you have God on your side in the first place - employ imprecatory prayer!

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The ABC Of Putting Your Foot In It

Lot's of coverage of ate ABC's comments this week. I think Julian Baggini got it wrong on this one. Funny comment though, "People often say how intelligent Williams is, but I think they confuse intelligence with being thoughtful, well-intentioned and in possession of a fine beard." You can imagine Blackadder delivering such a cutting line, which is coincidental since Sky News attributed the ABC's comments to Rowan Atkinson (ht:The News Quiz).

Most of the other contributors on the Baggini blog topic made the case well enough.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Test For Thesim

In the spirit of falsifiability you might want to check that all the chit-chat with theists isn't corrupting you. Take this test.

ht: Rational Mom.

Friday, 25 January 2008

God Releases Linux (Unsubstantiated)

I could quite easily fit my understanding of science into any religious view - God can do anything, so he made the world this way, and even made atheists to challenge my faith. Once I believe in magic I can invent anything. It's all down to the premises; so that a valid argument can be claimed to be a sound argument, or I can simply claim that it's beyond reason and the premises stand alone unchallengable.

I could quite justifiably, by the absolutist religious view, believe that in fact there is a God. But my God isn't omnipotent, though he is omnibenevolent. He spontaneously came into existence about 20 billion years ago, came up with a plan for our universe, and currently we are its latest enhancement. He's really sorry about the crappy mess he's left us in, and has wanted to atone - that's why he created a representation of himself as Jesus, but he hadn't anticipated our design flaws, so we screwed that up for him. He tried again with Mohammed, but that was a real cock-up. Eventually he settled on the Enlightenment. It was always going to be difficult - unlike his future creation Microsoft he decided to avoid any pretence at compatibility with previous versions - it was his Linux, and it had its own flaws, but did have certain benefits in that it wasn't proprietary, it was open source! Anyone could contribute and everyone could benefit. As with all good projects the Enlightenment is an ongoing development, new anti-religious security patches are being contributed by many sources. He hopes to eventually convert all customers. And there's an incentive for existing and upgrading customers alike - a free pass to heaven, where you'll be met by Steve Jobs with some great gifts.

I suppose if I believed the above I could be aspect blind, in that I don't see how my premises upon which it all stands can be at fault. But I'd KNOW I'm not, wouldn't I? Any objections?

Aspect Blindness and Personality

I wanted to note these points here following the reading posts by Ibrahim and Sam on the following blogs:



The charge that atheists suffer from Aspect Blindness regarding religion can be just as easily, if not more so, directed at the religious.

I think part the absolute commitment to the religious view is part of one's personal makeup, but put more generally it is a consequence of certain personalities.

I have had experience of religion. I was raised a Christian, I had doubts in my teens but wasn't fully aware of the strength of the atheistic alternative (I was agnostic), and eventually came to realise the flaws in the religious view. But, I've been around enough religious people to recognise several types. Some are religious by default, as JustBrowsing describes. Some really are strong unquestioning believers that simply reject any alternative, with some element of fear, either of the spiritual consequences, or simply of the unknown. Many are what I'd class as 'troubled', in that they desperately want to find something spiritual as a source of comfort and guidance because they have some sort of difficulty with the basic physical world and what they see as all its nastiness - such as crime and 'evil', or natural disasters, things that from my point of view I can classify simply and naturalistically as "some people aren't nice to each other" and "shit happens". I'm not troubled by the world and its problems and the fact that I can't fix them all. I'm not saying I'm heartless or fearless - I feel deeply disturbed to witness human and animal suffering, and I'd be as scared as the next person if I were mugged; but I can put these things into context so that I'm not fretting every minute of the day. I don't become depressed with the state of the world or my personal life. I do have a driving need to learn new stuff, but I'm not disturbed by the lack of answers.

In some cases the religious view is one of 'blind faith', the outright unquestioned denial of the possibility of an atheistic view. But in many case I'd describe faith more as 'tunnel vision' or 'aspect blindness', rather than simply 'blind', as a consequence of personality, where critical reasoning is accepted and used, but sufficiently distorted and abused to affirm the religious view.

Maybe I have personality issues that drive me towards a critical questioning and a general scepticism that results in my atheism, and maybe it's difficult for me recognise it in myself. I'm open to analysis, by professionals or amateurs.

It might be said that I'm this way because I haven't had a religious experience, and that if I had I'd know. I can't refute this categorically, but by the same token how am I supposed to know? And how would anyone else know what I have and haven't experienced? Maybe I have similar 'spiritual' experiences, but just as people have different thresholds of pain I have a low threshold of the 'spiritual' experience. Maybe that's all it boils down to, different strengths of 'zap' in the brain, and that the brains of those that perceive a stronger 'zap' interpret it all anthropomorphically as some superior presence. How would you tell the difference between that and a real religious God invoked revalatory event?

Tuesday, 22 January 2008


In response to Barefootboom I tried to figure out my take on 'knowledge':

I've been struggling with this for a while. I can't really get a handle on knowledge with regard to truth or justification. My mind tends to work in the concrete rather than the abstract, so maybe that's why.

So, what I can get a handle on, or at least I feel I can, is information (e.g. Shannon). Information is merely laid down in the brain, using the physicalist view, in patterns that vary according to person, time, current brain state, etc., acquired through the combination of genetics, development and sensory input and so on.

Sticking with the physicalist view that consciousness is a manifestation of brain activity that gives an appearance of the 'mind', then the processes of the mind consist of the manipulation and regurgitation of an individual brain's information at any particular time - outwardly, to others, an external representation of the internal information.

So what we call individual 'knowledge' is nothing more than continuously changing pattern of transformed information. Add into the mix other brains all trying to perform the same task, each with their own internal mix of this 'knowledge', then it's no wonder we struggle to find agreement on what we understand any particular piece of knowledge to be. If there is any 'truth' out there beyond human experience then we're unlikely to acquire or agree on any 'true' interpretation of it.

Why do we want to search for a truth of any kind? Why must we agree? I don't know what the biological driving forces might be, other than it could be viewed as yet another manifestation of the consequence of housing selfish genes. But it's pretty clear we are motivated to question, to understand, and to agree on 'truths'.

In this model there is no absolute truth, at least not that we can get at. There is only knowledge as information. What we make of it and how useful it is determines whether or not it is 'justified true belief', though I've never liked that phrase (because I couldn't understand it). And I think this is how such variety in understanding can be explained; how we arrive at such a debatable position about what 'truth' is, what god is, if god exists, what morality is, etc. In some respects this is a utilitarian view, but I don't see anything wrong with that.

If this interpretation is the case then it also explains in some way the success of science and its methods and why we find them useful: the use of repeatability to establish knowledge as a consistent set of information over time, space and environment; the use of logic to establish what we can conclude or at least what we can use as a working model. Science even goes to great lengths to iron out the noise and the vagaries of human fallibility by using double blind tests and performing statistical analysis on the data to make sure, as much as we can, that the results actually represent useful knowledge/information. In other words science helps us to get as good an agreement on any 'truth' as we can reasonably expect.

Beyond this view of knowledge I struggle with much of the philosophical contemplation of it. It seems to me that it's quite easy to analyse yourself until you vanish up your own ass, and I feel that that's what some philosophers do when considering truth and knowledge. Maybe it's just my ignorance of some of the finer points.