Thursday, November 01, 2007

on harmless deism


ceci n'est pas Dieu


As mentioned in a recent post, I have qualms about focusing too much on the religion issue to the neglect of so much else, being one with a perverse antipathy to specialisation in any case, but since I do love a bit of an argument, and since I've kind of committed myself, I''ll have a look at an apparently innocuous, even 'kindly' liberal religious belief - here in the form of the professed beliefs of a writer, one John Hewitt. In order to make my exploration easier to follow, I've pasted the beliefs here rather than linking to them. The only change I've made is to enumerate the beliefs for ease of reference. The numbers don't represent any order of importance.

My beliefs

  • 1. I believe that God is infinitely wise and intelligent.
  • 2. I believe that because God is infinitely wise and intelligent, God knows that even if God wrote down for us exactly what we should and should not believe or do, we would misinterpret it.
  • 3. I believe that because God knows this, God has never written a single word of guidance for us.
  • 4. I believe that humans, inspired by the presence of God, have written many words about God. Sometimes those words are wise and sometimes they are not, but those words are interpretations of God by humans and not the word of God.
  • 5. I believe that God is very interested in us, but that we are not God’s sole concern. The Earth and mankind are a tiny part of a much larger creation with goals that the human race will probably never fully understand.
  • 6. I believe that God occasionally steps in to guide or help the human race, or even individuals, but that God does so quietly and it is impossible to know for sure whether something was God’s work or our own work or blind chance.
  • 7. I believe that because it is always possible that God did step in and help out in any given situation, it is all right to be grateful when you think God has helped you or others.
  • 8. I believe that overall, God prefers that we fix our own problems.
  • 9. I believe that the universe, while a creation of God, was built to follow rules of science.
  • 10. I believe that because God’s creation of the universe followed the rules of science, the scientific explanation of the creation of the universe does not in any way require a discussion of God’s role, which we cannot fully understand anyway.
  • 11. I believe that when science and our interpretation of God are at odds, science is generally right and our interpretation of God is generally wrong.
  • 12. I believe that religion, like most intoxicating things, is fine when used in moderation but dangerous when used in excess.

Now, I've been challenged to find anything objectionable about Hewitt's beliefs. My first response is to say that I find them philosophically objectionable, in the sense that I find Kant's more or less arbitrary positing of a noumenal world outside the realm of the perceived physical world objectionable. That's to say, it just seems too obviously a construction, one that cannot by its nature be provable, and it serves no useful explanatory purpose. It offends against Okham's razor [do not multiply concepts beyond necessity], and just adds more air to windy metaphysical speculation. Kant's move, designed apparently to answer Hume's famous problem of induction,
has aptly been called a version of the 'worst argument in the world', the invention of an unknowable world to somehow explain our limitation to the world we can only know. The obvious rejoinder is that Kant doesn't know anything of this noumenal world, including whether it exists or not. Bad though the argument is, it's really the only argument believers have left.

Hewitt's beliefs are another version of this worst of all arguments, a sort of personalised version of Kant's noumena [which, incidentally, comes from the Latin numena, meaning spirits]. We humans, trapped in the phenomenal world, can never really 'get at' God. Everything written about God [Hewitt cleverly avoids giving his deity a gender] is more or less wrong, a misinterpretation, or at best a mere interpretation, which gropes well short of the Reality [beliefs 2, 5 and 10]. This of course invokes God's mystery, the eternal escape clause. For example, quite apart from the long list of God's misdeeds related in the Bible, the cruelty and wastefulness of the evolutionary process might suggest a capricious or even an incompetent God, but no no, belief 5 more or less covers that, the fault is in our understanding, never in God.

Is Hewitt a Christian? Presumably not. In belief 4 he dismisses the claims of all the world's 'sacred texts' to be the word of God. This releases him from all traditional, text-based beliefs about God and our relationship to God. His God is apparently ahistorical, but surely only apparently, for Hewitt hasn't derived his belief from nothing. For example, the fact that he believes in one God rather than many reveals modern theological influences. It's fashionable to believe that monotheism is an advance on polytheism, though I've heard no convincing argument to this effect. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were hardly unsophisticated. In fact, I would argue that Hewitt manages to keep his God as ahistorical, as generalised as possible by avoiding some of the tough questions. He makes no mention of the soul - does it exist, do only humans have one? Nor does he say anything about the afterlife. Does he believe in it? If not, what can he make of a God that creates all these creatures with a finite span of life between infinitudes of nothingness? It's a mystery.

There are other questions to be looked at here. Can a personal god be reconciled with the theory of evolution? Can we really rip gods from their historical context and expect them to have a living reality to most people, who like their gods anthropomorphised and nearby? Isn't there a problem with the remoteness and reduced space allowed for God by the advancement of science? I might look further at these questions later, or I might not.

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9 Comments:

At 10:05 pm , Anonymous Damien said...

If you would permit me to add some things to this interesting post.

"That's to say, it just seems too obviously a construction, one that cannot by its nature be provable, and it serves no useful explanatory purpose. It offends against Okham's razor [do not multiply concepts beyond necessity], and just adds more air to windy metaphysical speculation."

The God hypothesis explains the beginning of the universe that occurred 14 billion years ago. And even if the universe were eternal it would explain the regularity of the laws of physics.

So even given an infinite universe the question would still remain, why there is order in the universe rather than chaos, for there is no prima facie reason why there should be order rather than chaos. This has to be explained and a rational God seems a good solution.

To explain the universe coming into existence you could posit mind or a far more bloated ontology such as trillions of trillions of universes in one big multiverse. If the latter then you would ask why that number and not more or less and thus the explanatory regress would continue. But God is enormously simple being and thus an ideal position to stop the explanatory regress. God is infinite in power etc and so doesn't invite further questions as to why that number and not some other that you encounter with physical explanations.

The God factor is not to say that we are positing an unknowable or unprovable world. This is false. Theism can be known through analysing the effects of the cause in this world. Thus we see a finite universe, regular physical laws, design, human consciousness and we can get an idea of the cause by analysing the effect. This is certainly no mystery.

 
At 1:46 am , Blogger Stewart said...

I've rather avoided commenting on your comment because, basically, it's just too silly. What is the God hypothesis? Is it that one god created everything we can't explain? And which god is that, and why one? And what does it explain, in fact. How did this god, or these gods create the universe, and why?
A rational god seems a good solution, you say. What is a rational god? And this rational god arrived at the human species by the unwieldy, altogether nasty process of evolution? Come on, your recently-invented, ahistorical, non-anthropomorphic god is clearly a god of the gaps, reduced now to accounting for the beginning of the universe. Please be assured that concepts of order, chaos and rationalism are not much employed by cosmologists as they try to account for the first moments of our universe. Positing 'mind' as a cause, with no justification whatever, just raises more questions than it answers. In fact, it's just another form of anthropomorphism.

 
At 2:45 pm , Anonymous Damien said...

Stewart

To dismiss my comment as 'silly' is just plain arrogant; these arguments have been put forth by some top philosophers today and many top atheist thinkers have respected them enough to engage them seriously in debate.

"What is the God hypothesis? Is it that one god created everything we can't explain? And which god is that, and why one?"

It is the Judeo-Christian God of infinite power, knowledge and love. The infinite nature of God betrays his simpleness and thus this is a great explanatory virtue. It is one God which is obviously simpler than positing a plurality.

"And what does it explain, in fact. How did this god, or these gods create the universe, and why?
A rational god seems a good solution, you say. What is a rational god?"

The universe needs a causal explanation and it can't be a physical one and so you have eliminated the only option other than abstract numbers or a mind. The former is causally impotent so it must be the latter by process of elimination.

A rational God, is, well, like us only to a far greater degree.

"And this rational god arrived at the human species by the unwieldy, altogether nasty process of evolution?"

If you accept neo-Darwinian evolution. I do not. I am open to common descent but not natural selection. Scientifically it is lacking in evidence but there is a lot wrong with it philosophically. Most notably, it doesn't explain consciousness.

And I don't see anything particularly "nasty" about nature.

"Come on, your recently-invented, ahistorical, non-anthropomorphic god is clearly a god of the gaps, reduced now to accounting for the beginning of the universe."

"God of the gaps" is only relevant when you are speaking of processes within the universe - it is not relevant when speaking of the universe as a whole. That is, there is really NO option of a physical cause when you are asking what caused the totality of the physical universe.

 
At 2:49 pm , Anonymous Damien said...

"Please be assured that concepts of order, chaos and rationalism are not much employed by cosmologists as they try to account for the first moments of our universe."

Well this argument would work if cosmologists held a monopoly on truth. They do not though. My argument is a philosophical one which is where you have to go because science can't explain what ultimately exists. Scientific pronouncements on the existence of God have grown enormously as evidence for the hot big bang theory has increased.

"Positing 'mind' as a cause, with no justification whatever, just raises more questions than it answers. In fact, it's just another form of anthropomorphism."

An infinite God is a very simple being and thus invites very few further explanatory questions. What alternative would you erect? A physical universe would still invite many questions of the origin of the many particles and their powers and dispositions (physical laws) of whence they came and why so many? A central Mind, an undivisable conscious self does not invite so many queries.

It is not just anthropomorphism because it is predicated on the evidence I sighted and not just some human projection into the sky.

 
At 6:13 pm , Blogger Stewart said...

I still find your arguments silly, and that won't change no matter how many people defend them or take them seriously, I'm afraid.
The claim that the god hypothesis is extremely simple doesn't seem to me to hold up. You claim that an infinite being is simple, but infinity is never simple - in fact your term bloated ontology is an excellent term for your hypothesis, and so I propose to call it from now on 'the bloated ontology hypothesis'. Thank you. For your 'simple' being neatly explains everything, as you have said. In the same way, it explains nothing.
And of course the bloated ontology thesis can't be refuted because, hey, it's not a scientific theory, it's just a philosophical argument.

The claim that the physical universe must have been caused by something non-physical presupposes the existence of something that has yet to be proven and so cannot be taken seriously. Another version of 'the world's worst argument'.

If you don't see anything nasty about nature my friend then you must be walking around the planet with your senses plugged up, or with a profound lack of empathy for the struggles of your fellow creatures.

Your remark that 'a rational being would be like us only to a far greater degree' is a careless one. What, more self-deceiving, more egotistical, more spiteful, more unpredictable, etc etc? More rational, you mean? I suspect your understanding of rationality is a bit vague. I suggest you read Hume on the matter. I think you'll find that our rationality is never divorced from our self-interest. So what of the rationality of your Bloated Ontology? It wouldn't do to speculated on his psychology, now would it?

As to the mass-murderer you choose to identify as your deity, the less said the better. Worship him if you will, but as far as I'm concerned, such worship puts you beyond the pale of decent human beings.

 
At 4:47 am , Anonymous Damien said...

"The claim that the god hypothesis is extremely simple doesn't seem to me to hold up. You claim that an infinite being is simple, but infinity is never simple - in fact your term bloated ontology is an excellent term for your hypothesis, and so I propose to call it from now on 'the bloated ontology hypothesis'."

You still haven't explained how one infinitely powerful causal agent is less simple than the alternative - I presume your a materialist, so I ask how the universe with all its variability and particles and laws is less simple than one all powerful, transcendent, indivisable being or centre of consciousness.

An infinite being doesn't invite further explanatory questions. For example, before they new the speed of light they assumed it was infinite since to posit an arbitrary number would be to invite further questions of just why that number and not another.

"For your 'simple' being neatly explains everything, as you have said. In the same way, it explains nothing."

I presume you mean here that the God hypothesis is non-falsifiable. But this is mistaken, you could definately prove it wrong. By, say, establishing the eternality of the physical universe through science or philosophy by disproving big bang cosmology for example.

 
At 5:23 am , Anonymous Damien said...

"And of course the bloated ontology thesis can't be refuted because, hey, it's not a scientific theory, it's just a philosophical argument."

Bloated ontology is another reference to Ockham's razor - the simplest thesis (presuming they both have the same explanatory power) is presumed correct. This principle lent Copernicus' model credence over and above Ptolemy's because they both explained the same amount of data and yet the former was far simpler.

What do you mean 'just a philosophical argument'? What do you propose for an argument? Science? Empiricism? Scientific experiment? Science presumes philosophy to even get off the ground - it contains a set of assumptions such as the existence of the external world, the rationality of the universe, its orderliness etc These basic assumptions can't be proved by experiment but only philosophical argument. So I wouldn't be so quick to put down philosophy.

The claim that the physical universe must have been caused by something non-physical presupposes the existence of something that has yet to be proven and so cannot be taken seriously. Another version of 'the world's worst argument'.

What about non-physical numbers, sets, propositions etc? What about consciousness? The unique marks of the mental - inentionality and phenomenology? These are not material entities. And yet agent causation is a very real power.

"If you don't see anything nasty about nature my friend then you must be walking around the planet with your senses plugged up, or with a profound lack of empathy for the struggles of your fellow creatures."

I presume you mean "nature, red in tooth and claw". There is purpose in nature, symbiosis and harmony. Even the death of creatures has purpose - where do you think all that petroleum in the ground has come from? Death of millions of creatures.

 
At 5:28 am , Anonymous Damien said...

"Your remark that 'a rational being would be like us only to a far greater degree' is a careless one. What, more self-deceiving, more egotistical, more spiteful, more unpredictable, etc etc? More rational, you mean?"

No, God wouldn't be given over to the desires and neurosis that drive us to these particular vices. God is all powerful and totally free and so not beholden to such outside influences. Thus, given God's omniscience, he knows what is good and rational and is totally free to choose to do so, unlike ourselves.

 
At 3:51 pm , Blogger Stewart said...

Thanks for telling us all what your god is like, and then imposing it on us. But of course you haven't got the slightest idea what the thing is like - unless of course, you are that god. This is the problem - you're telling us something for which you haven't the slightest scrap of evidence. The smugness and arrogance with which you extol the [quite recently invented] virtues of your self-serving fantasy are rather jaw-dropping to me. I'm sorry, but I have no inclination to discuss the matter further. What would be the point?

 

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