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.


Makarios said...

“I find no rational reason to presuppose God.”
So what do you make of the Law of First Cause? It seems to me that that is a pretty reasonable place to start anyone of any belief system.

The metaphysical idea that a God is one possible cause of everything is fine,
But it isn’t metaphysical only when it is hard scientific evidence that shows us that nothing has a beginning without a cause. Nothing that exists does so in the absence of an explanation of that existence. Matter cannot preexist itself not come from an infinite regress of causes etc. etc. etc. These are religious presuppositions, these are scientific facts. Don’t we need to pay attention to that?

“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”

Actually you couldn’t propose any of those without having to accept that every single one of them has come and later been rejected precisely, again, because of scientific evidence that even atheist scientists recognise. That is why, because of the clear implications of a universe with a beginning, they continue to posit theory after theory after theory; all in an attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion - Our universe had a cause and it couldn’t have been matter that ultimately created itself.

“based on some human intuitive requirement that there should be some cause”
It’s based on hard scientific laws that allow no compromise or interpretation. As atheist astronomer Arthur Eddington says - “ The second law of thermodynamics holds, I think, th supreme position among the laws fo Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations - then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observations, well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But it your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it by collapse in deepest humiliation.” He is one of the people who is deeply troubled with a universe that has a beginning. He finds the idea disgusting and repulsive. That in itself is as good a proof as any of its transcendent implications.

“What experiences do you have, on the scale of universes, that make you think this or any universe requires a creator at all?”
Of course you would accept that the same question could be asked of anyone, including you, regardless of our current position.

I've got to take my kid to hockey practise so I couldn't read all of your excellent post. You haven't taken this topic lightly. Nor should anyone.

However, because you substitute metaphysical for scientific that allows you to arrive at the above conclusions, I'm wondering, how do you explain away Jesus seeming rising from the dead?

Makarios said...

Sorry that I replied without proof reading. Hope you can make sense even with all the typos.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Makarios,

"Law of First Cause" - It's at best a hypothesis not a law. There is nothing we know that demonstrates there must be a first cause; nothing that shows infinite regress is not the case; there isn't even proof that causality is real in any ultimate sense.

" is hard scientific evidence that shows us that nothing has a beginning without a cause..." - No it isn't. Can you direct me to that theory and, more significantly, its proof? Even if science could show causality within this universe, as far as we know that means nothing outside this universe, if indeed there is anything outside this universe, in whatever sense you might want to use the term 'outside'.

"it couldn’t have been matter that ultimately created itself" - First, how do you know that to be the case? Is it one of the 'obvious' ideas I covered in the main post? Second, in what sense do you mean 'created'? It implies causality, and possibly agency. How do you know anything about these matters outside the limits of human experience?

"That in itself is as good a proof as any of its transcendent implications." - No it isn't. This paragraph quoted the opinion of a particular scientist about a particular law and its relevance. That isn't proof of anything. If you're talking about the 2nd law itself, then that applies within our known universe and its known physical laws. To claim that this law holds and then to claim there is something outside this law - i.e. God, the infinite and omnipotent, and hence possible creator of perpetual motion, contravention of the 2nd law, etc. - seems like speculation to me.

"Of course you would accept that the same question could be asked of anyone, including you, regardless of our current position." - Yes, exactly. That's why I think all our knowledge comes ultimately through accumulated experience (some of which may be accumulated and passed on through inheritance) and the use of the mind to construct order, to 'invent' or 'discover' laws of nature, and why our knowledge is limited and subjective. We cannot know of ultimate truth, partly because we cannot know if there is such a thing. Whatever we know, how would we know there is nothing more to know?

"I'm wondering, how do you explain away Jesus seeming rising from the dead?" - I can't. But then nor can you. You don't really know that happened, in any real theistic sense. Do you really think these events have been transmitted and recorded faithfully? Watch the Life of Brian, I think it's scene 2, where distant crowd members are straining to listen to Jesus:

- "What was that?"
- "I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers'."
- "Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?"
- "Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

And therein lies the comedy of relying on oral traditions and ancient texts. Stories are misunderstood, exaggerated or plain invented. Which also brings me back to the presupposition of God. If you didn't believe in God in the first place the resurrection story would be treated like any other fable. And, believing in God isn't sufficient; the Muslims believe in God but don't accept Jesus as divine. The angel Gabriel revealed God's word to Mohammed - do you believe that story? And surely you're not suggesting the resurrection story, which relies on the presupposition of God to be true, is the proof of Jesus as divine and in turn the proof of God - a circular argument?

Aaron said...

I've let this rattle around in the back of my brain for the last few days in an attempt to conjure something that bore at least a passing resemblance to a rational basis for faith. There is, of course, nothing which fits this criterion.

How then do you address someone like me? Someone who admits up front the utter irrationality of his faith and yet holds to it in spite of that? The Kierkegaardian view that faith is inherently irrational offers few handholds for those who would grapple with it because it has come to peace with its own indefensibility to reason.

To my mind, those who attempt to rationalize their faith, to "prove God", if you will, are inevitably doomed to failure. The "proofs" offered by such people are easily dealt with and, in fact, I routinely knock them down myself. There is no special "way of knowing", in fact there is no way to know at all. Neither is there any necessity for a purpose; if there were a purpose (which there may or may not be) it would be beyond our understanding anyway so to invoke a purpose as "proof" is ridiculous.

All of this then brings us around to the original question: How does one deal with a theist who admits the complete and utter irrationality of faith, who admits that it is impossible to know that god exists, who admits that life does not necessarily require a purpose, and who will even go so far as to say that the Bible is decidedly not literal?

Rationally, my suggestion is that you write me off as a madman. After all, I cannot even get it wrong in the right way. I stand opposed to my fellow Christians perhaps more often than I stand with them (this is a certainty in the case of American fundamentalists) and my sympathies lie more strongly with strong agnostics like yourself than with "Bible believing" Christians who put forth nonsense ideas like man coexisting with dinosaurs.

I suppose the summary response is to note that the Christianity you describe is not the Christianity that I espouse or defend and that I largely agree with what you put forth.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Aaron,

Apologies for the delay - haven't been on here for some time.

How then do you address someone like me?...How does one deal with a theist who admits the complete and utter irrationality of faith...

Live and let live. Your entitled to believe what you want, how you want, if you insist. I can only offer my point of view when it comes to our personal interaction.

The problem arises when having to deal with the many theists who want to coerce others into accepting their beliefs based on the authorities that they adhere to. This may not apply to you - I don't know what your position might be on any particular issue; and I don't care if you particularly base your opinion on the authority of your faith; but I do care if you propose to coerce my behaviour based on authorities you believe in and I don't. I don't have a problem if a theist bases their stance on a democratic issue on their faith, though I'll argue for/against it based on my rational understanding of the issue. But no theist has the right to insist on their stance being upheld because of the dictates of their faith.

Lesley Fellows said...

Mmm.. well if there were certainty it wouldn't be called faith. I'm with you bro - live and let live

A Voice in the Crowd said...

Ron, reading a little more through your blog, you don't seem like all that bad of a guy.

I left a mathematical proof for God near your comment on my blog.

Here is another thing you should look at, the document story of Fatima:

I would have to say, if I read both of these posts,and I was atheist, there would be at least a little stirring inside me in the wee hours of the morning when I was left with my thoughts.