Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thinking about the belief in God.

Most people I know, in my rather special little community, believe in God - the supernatural variety, "old man in the sky" type god.

People who are otherwise arch-skeptics believe that the scriptures were "revealed" at Sinai in front of millions of witnesses by a supernatural god who expects us to sing his praises every day, at appointed times, and cares what we eat, or what we do between the sheets. Not to mention that since he created us, and knows all things large and small, and moreover knows what will happen in time to come, therefore also knows exactly what we will choose to eat and everything else; suggesting that it is not really our choice - we have been created to make the very choices we do. Yet we are judged by him for doing so? And if he created everything that exists, he also created evil. So how does this square with his being the perfect, "all-good" creator of the universe; implying that evil is either imagined or God is not all-good and/or all-powerful. It all seems very silly.

Of course, these are familiar well-rehearsed arguments for which no answer exists - the problems of free-will and of evil (theodicy). What surprises me is how they are so routinely ignored by so many including our media commentators of varying degrees of intelligence and erudition. An example: Dennis Praeger, arguing with Sam Harris, when challenged to justify his beliefs (in creation and revelation) answers, in effect, that he believes because he sees no viable alternative explanation for the world as we know it (a variant of the argument from order), and that, in any case, religious people are generally more moral than non-believers. I think this may take the record for the number of implicitly false syllogisms, and circular arguments, contained in a short space. Most of this stuff is just noise. But people eat it up.

Sam Harris, for his part, making the atheist's argument, makes some errors as well, that unnecessarily polarize the discussion. While his analysis of, and denunciation of, most of organized religion is compelling (at least to me), he then comes to the alternative - which is some sort of scientifically designed morality and this collapses quickly under its own weight. Let me try and explain.

I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian, but it seems to me that both those arguing for and those arguing against the belief in God make two crucial errors, namely, the pretense of knowledge and the violation of Hume's fork.

On the matter of the pretense of knowledge it seems to me foolish to deny that there are many things in this universe that we do not know, and may never know. With the science we have we can speculate about the beginning of the universe, and come up with a more or less satisfying explanation, but in the end we cannot answer the question "how was matter created?" Similar questions come to mind: "What was there before the Big Bang?" "What was there before time?" Indeed these questions do not even appear self-evidently coherent. Physics becomes metaphysics. Why should it be surprising to find out that we human-beings, even being the marvelous creatures we are, are probably very limited in what we can perceive? After all, we have only five physical senses. How many other dimensions of perception might there be? Likewise we cannot simply rule out what appears to us to be in the realm of the supernatural, or the extra-sensory. In many respects we are bound to respond simply "we do not know." (This is probably the only thing on which Bill Maher and I agree.)

The religious think they provide an answer when they say "God created the universe." A superior, indeed perfect intelligence, created these things beyond our perception and understanding. Well, what does this mean? Why do they think this is an answer? It merely provides a story with no explanation of its own. Who created God? I might as well say "its all magic." What I am actually saying when I say God created the universe is "I don't know how the universe came to be or even what that means." The religious person has no more knowledge than the pretentious scientist.

We should note in passing that belief in creation does not get us to revelation and acceptance of all the commandments allegedly revealed thereby. This requires another giant fantastical leap.

On the matter of the second crucial error, the violation of Hume's fork, David Hume argued, (for me decisively) that there are two unbridgeable realms of human discourse - the moral and the factual - the ethical and the scientific. The latter, the factual-scientific realm, concerns what is. The world is round. My weight has increased in recent years. Spain won the world cup in 2010. These are factual matters about which scientific investigation can be made. To be sure, subjective perception is still required on the way to a consensus - there is no escaping this. But, in the normal meaning of the word, these are matters of objective truth or falsity. They can be verified or (sometimes only) falsified.

The former type of discourse - the moral-ethical - is another matter completely. This concerns what ought to be (as opposed to what is) and, as Hume pithily put it, you cannot get an "ought" from an "is." "Ought" implies personal valuation and this is not a matter of verification. Good and bad, morally speaking, are not matters subject to scientific investigation. They are rather matters of personal valuation, matters of taste or moral belief. This is a type of "knowledge" completely different from factual knowledge.

To be sure, moral precepts, rules of conduct, etc. can and are influenced by facts, by circumstances. Some rules are judged good or bad in terms of their contribution to some other more ultimate good or bad. But the most ultimate, the most fundamental, values are good or bad in themselves - just because they are. It is a matter of "faith." I cannot prove that torture is bad by any scientific investigation (though I may prove that it is ineffective, which is another matter). I cannot prove that individual freedom is good, that slavery is bad. But I certainly believe they are with every fiber of my being.

Now both Harris and Praeger deny Hume's fork. Praeger believes good and bad are in the same realm as scientifically true and untrue. They are subject to God's rules in the same way that physical laws are. Its simple. If God wants it, it is good. If God does not want it, it is evil and we can investigate this in the scripture. (Problem: as Harris points out; how do you know which scripture is the valid one?).

Harris believes that we can use logic and fact to fashion a superior morality - that we can derive morals from science and logic.

Both are wrong.

The truth is more simple and less polarizing.

One: We don't know many things. We should loudly proclaim this.
How was the world created?
I don't know and nor do you?

Two: We all employ a type of "faith" to decide how to behave.
The religious seem to think that this is more arbitrary than asserting some kind of revelation - that a morality based on a revealed scripture is less subjective than resort to individual conscience.
Newsflash: Conscience is all we have in matters of morality. For some their conscience tells them to obey the revealed word, for others it tells them the revealed word is sometimes contrary to morality. You have to decide what you really believe. And, belief is not a matter of simple choice. Sometimes I wish I could believe in a system of revealed laws proclaimed by an infallible leader and savior. I can pretend that I do, but I cannot simply choose to. You can't believe what you don't believe. And what you do believe about morality, about good and bad, is always a matter of individual "faith."

Americans, being pragmatic, have sometimes unconsciously taken this realization and molded it into organized religion. The rules, rituals, festivals, and aesthetics of received religion have been retained, but their significance has morphed from the literal into the symbolic in the service of community coherence - the practice of compassion, charity, celebration, and comfort. Revelation itself is seen as a symbol for some sort of "inner revelation" - the conscience talking to us.

This approach creates a wide tent. Is it wide enough to accommodate the likes of both Harris and Praeger?

For similar musings see here and here.


Andrew said...

Wow, man. There is a lot here. Excellent piece, I'm going to pass it on. Just for the sake of discussion though.

Take the statement "does god listen to prayers?" for a moment. To answer this we must first ask what is meant by the term 'god.' Either we answer that 'god' is something or god is nothing.

If we answer that 'god' is nothing than the question makes no sense. If we answer that god is something than we are claiming that 'god' is more than nothing and must therefore exist.

Once we are able to define exactly what 'god' is we will be able to determine if morality is a product of 'god.' Until then it seems rather imprudent to used 'god' as a justification for anything, especially morality.

Anyway, thanks for the great blog. You have a new reader.

Peter Lewin said...

Glad you liked the piece Andrew.

It seems clear, that from a theological point of view, you cannot talk of God existing (I mean people do talk like that, but it contains unacceptable implications). For something to "exist" implies a sort of delimitation of its characteristics. But, according to religious teachings, God is beyond all limitations. God cannot be defined - certainly not by us. The Jewish philosopher Maimonidies affirmed that we cannot say anything definitive about what God is, only what we know he is not - for example, limited by space or time.

Personally, I find this a waist of my time - why talk about what we cannot know?

You allude to another problem. Can we think of prayer as an attempt to make a deal with God? The politically correct answer is absolutely not. How can we think we could possibly change God's mind? And this also bumps up against the question of free will and determinism.

Oh the joys.

Troy Camplin said...

Something along these lines you might find interesting, as it relates too to economics:

Anonymous said...

Part I
Earlier it was impossible for us to give any satisfactory answer to this question. But modern science, rather we should say that Einstein, has made it an easy task for us. And Stephen Hawking has provided us with the clue necessary for solving this riddle. Actually scientists in their infinite wisdom have already kept the ground well-prepared for us believers so that one day we can give a most plausible and logically consistent answer to this age-old question. Let me first quote from the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking:
“The idea of inflation could also explain why there is so much matter in the universe. There is something like ten million million million million million million million million million million million million million million (1 with eighty zeroes after it) particles in the region of the universe that we can observe. Where did they all come from? The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero.”
Here the question stops. So the clue is this: if we can ultimately arrive at zero, then no further question will be raised, and there will be no infinite regression. What I intend to do here is something similar to that. I want to show that our God is a bunch of several zeroes, and that therefore no further question need be raised about His origin. And here comes Einstein with his special theory of relativity for giving us the necessary empirical support to our project.
God is a Being. Therefore God will have existence as well as essence. So I will have to show that both from the point of view of existence as well as from the point of view of essence God is zero. It is almost a common parlance that God is spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, and all-pervading. Here we are getting three zeroes; space is zero, time is zero, change is zero. But how to prove that if there is a God, then that God will be spaceless, timeless, and changeless? From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light both distance and time become unreal. For light even an infinite distance is infinitely contracted to zero. The volume of an infinite universe full of light only will be simply zero due to this property of light. A universe with zero volume is a spaceless universe. Again at the speed of light time totally stops. So a universe full of light only is a spaceless, timeless universe. But these are the properties of light only! How do we come to know that God is also having the same properties of light so that God can also be spaceless, timeless? Scientists have shown that if there is a God, then that God can only be light, and nothing else, and that therefore He will have all the properties of light. Here is the proof.

Anonymous said...

Part II
Scientists have shown that total energy of the universe is always zero. If total energy is zero, then total mass will also be zero due to energy-mass equivalence. Now if there is a God, then scientists have calculated the total energy and mass of the universe by taking into consideration the fact that there is also a God. In other words, if there is a God, then this total energy-mass calculation by the scientists is God-inclusive, not God-exclusive. This is due to two reasons. First of all, even if there is a God, they are not aware of the fact that there is a God. Secondly, they do not admit that there is a God. So, if there is a God, then they have not been able to keep that God aside before making this calculation, because they do not know that there is a God. They cannot say that they have kept Him aside and then made this calculation, because by saying that they will admit that there is a God. At most they can say that there is no God. But we are not going to accept that statement as the final verdict on God-issue, because we are disputing that statement. So the matter of the fact is this: if God is really there, then total mass and total energy of the universe including that God are both zero. Therefore mass and energy of God will also be zero. God is without any mass, without any energy. And Einstein has already shown that anything having zero rest-mass will have the speed of light. In other words, it will be light. So, if God is there, then God will also be light, and therefore He will be spaceless, timeless. So from the point of view of existence God is zero, because he is spaceless, timeless, without any mass, without any energy.

Anonymous said...

Part III
Now we will have to show that from the point of view of essence also God is zero. If there is only one being in the universe, and if there is no second being other than that being, then that being cannot have any such property as love, hate, cruelty, compassion, benevolence, etc. Let us say that God is cruel. Now to whom can He be cruel if there is no other being other than God Himself? So, if God is cruel, then is He cruel to Himself? Therefore if we say that God is all-loving, merciful, benevolent, etc., then we are also admitting that God is not alone, that there is another being co-eternal with God to whom He can show His love, benevolence, goodness, mercy, compassion, etc. If we say that God is all-loving, then we are also saying that this “all” is co-eternal with God. Thus we are admitting that God has not created the universe at all, and that therefore we need not have to revere Him, for the simple reason that He is not our creator!
It is usually said that God is good. But Bertrand Russell has shown that God cannot be good for the simple reason that if God is good, then there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God’s will. Therefore, if God is the ultimate Being, then that God cannot be good. But neither can He be evil. God is beyond good and evil. Like Hindu’s Brahma, a real God can only be nirguna, nirupadhik; without any name, without any quality. From the point of view of essence also, a real God is a zero. Mystics usually say that God is a no-thing. This is the real God, not the God of the scriptures.
So, why should there be any need for creation here, if God is existentially, as well as essentially, zero?
But if there is someone who is intelligent and clever enough, then he will not stop arguing here. He will point out to another infinite regression. If God is light, then He will no doubt be spaceless, timeless, etc. Therefore one infinite regression is thus arrested. But what about the second regression? How, and from whom, does light get its own peculiar properties by means of which we have successfully arrested the first regression? So, here is another infinite regression. But we need not have to worry much about this regression, because this problem has already been solved. A whole thing, by virtue of its being the whole thing, will have all the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness. It need not have to depend on any other external source for getting these properties. Thus no further infinite regression will be there.
H. S. Pal