My theological journey

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Posted November 28th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , .

I grew up in the southern United States, a region famous for religious fundamentalism. My parents are Roman Catholics, and nearly all of my extended family identifies as Christian. I went to a Catholic primary school and later attended a Catholic high school.

Given that history, you might be surprised to learn that I’d always found the concept of God confusing. I was 10 years old the first time I recall thinking about this subject. These thoughts usually took place at the top of an oak tree in our front yard. I’d scamper up the branches until I was above the roof of my family’s single story house. I enjoyed the challenge– it was tricky to select branches close enough to grab but strong enough to support my weight.

When I reached the top of the oak tree, I clumsily tried to climb the tree of knowledge. The oak tree allowed me to see farther than I could from the ground, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand– really understand– how the universe worked. My curiosity was already an overwhelming disability.

Learning to climb the tree of knowledge was a lot like learning to climb an oak tree. I had to be sure that the assumptions I chose were simple enough for me to grasp but strong enough to support the weight of my worldview. I’d already taken science classes, and I learned those lessons a little too well. I learned to keep an open mind, to question everything. I learned to check my assumptions to see if I’d mistakenly assumed something that was wrong or (worse) ambiguous. More than anything else, I learned to falsify my ideas by comparing them to experiment.

As you can probably imagine, my childhood was a little socially awkward…

So I liked climbing trees– it was a solitary activity that left me plenty of time to think. My thoughts often turned to God, probably because He confused me so much. I’d been told that He was an overwhelmingly powerful Being, but I’d never personally seen any evidence that He existed. However, all the adults I knew insisted that He was constantly watching us to make sure we were being nice. If we were nice, He’d reward us with eternal bliss after death. Naughty people… well, I didn’t like thinking about that. (I still don’t.)

As a young boy, I felt that this claim had a familiar ring to it. It sounded like another (discredited) claim that adults had been making for as long as I could remember. But the claim of God’s existence was so much vaster in scope! I began to suspect that the adults genuinely believed in God; their belief wasn’t just theater as it’d been with the other claim. Then I noticed something odd. Whenever I asked questions about God, people became visibly uncomfortable in ways they rarely did when I inquired about other subjects. Teachers instantly became less helpful and more combative. They’d say things like “you’ve just got to have faith”[1] and shoo me away.

That answer didn’t make sense to me at the time, so I decided to ignore the adults. Instead, I tried to test the idea of God for myself using my naive notions of the scientific method. I prayed for God to show me some sign that He existed– to move a cup across a table, among other things. (Nothing miraculous happened.)

This confused me, but one day I found these passages in the Bible:

Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Luke 4:12

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

So my experiment had been flawed; its failure wasn’t proof that God didn’t exist. God simply preferred people to believe in Him based on faith instead of evidence. That’s what people had been saying to me all along: God wasn’t obliged to perform parlor tricks to convince me of His existence!

Slowly, though, I started marveling at how easy it’d be to trick people who didn’t use evidence to reach their conclusions. For instance, could I tell people that I was a “wallet inspector” and claim that they had to have “faith” to see my official badge?

Obviously that’d be ridiculous. Even I could tell that people are usually rational– they clearly used evidence to reach most of their conclusions. This distinction bothered me. Why did people take one approach to the question of God’s existence, but take a fundamentally different approach to any other question?

I never got a clear answer to that query, but everyone agreed that the question of God’s existence was much different than a question like “should I buy this used car?” They agreed that you should use evidence to decide whether you should buy the car, saying that faith only applied to a question like “Does God exist?”

But… shouldn’t you be more careful when dealing with bigger decisions? For instance, deciding what type of candy to buy requires a far shorter investigation than buying a house. You’d pore over many pages of evidence for the house purchase, but buy the candy bar on a whim. It seemed to me that the question of God, being much more important than buying a house, would require the most demanding investigation of my life.

My child’s mind was confused by the fact that most people seemed to disagree with this position. I had to be missing something! My ignorance began to gnaw at me, compelling me to read all the books I could find about religion[2] in the library. None of the claims in the religious books seemed to be as rigorously justified as the claims made in the science books. I spent a long time in the card catalog trying to find a convincing logical argument to support the existence of God, or a well-documented miracle.

I found many proofs for God’s existence, but all of them seem flawed to me. (That’s probably just because I misunderstood them or completely missed the most solid proof, though…)

I found many accounts of miracles, and whole crowds of intelligent people had been satisfied with the evidence establishing these miracles. Unfortunately, I found that many different religions make such claims, and I couldn’t honestly say that any particular religion’s claims appeared more valid than another’s. (That’s probably just because I missed the most credible miracle, though…)

Looking back, I cringe at how simplistic my reasoning was. I’d ignored a lot of nuances and made countless assumptions that I didn’t recognize at the time.

Several years and many books later, I remember seriously wondering– for the first time– if God even existed at all. At first I instinctively recoiled from that idea. You see, everyone I’d ever met believed in God. I thought that I was the first person in history to doubt the existence of God! Adults would certainly be furious if I told them, and my friends weren’t interested in much more than video games. The few people I did tell instantly (and angrily) shunned me. I was utterly alone. As if that weren’t enough, I soon realized that I was now damned to eternal hellfire if God really did exist, or doomed to eternal nonexistence after death if He didn’t.

I was 12 years old.

It wasn’t until a year later– when I first got on the internet– that I learned the word “atheist.” It turns out I wasn’t the first person to doubt the existence of God! Just knowing that I wasn’t alone was enormously comforting, but my mortality still weighed heavily on me in a manner that’d probably be unfamiliar to people who believe in Heaven.

Life went on, of course. Catholic schools have religion classes which I continued to attend through high school. I found those classes fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, while my teachers and classmates quickly grew tired of my questions. For example, one day the teacher was discussing “transubstantiation.” She stressed that transubstantiation wasn’t just a spiritual or metaphorical change, but was in fact a tangible change.

Now, I’d grown accustomed to “spiritual” claims, and had decided to ignore them because they weren’t falsifiable. But I’ve always had trouble keeping my mouth shut, especially when it comes to subjects that confuse me. Without thinking, I blurted out: “Have I been sitting in the wrong seat in church? Is this miraculous change tangible– actually visible– from another location?”

Big mistake. She called my parents that evening (concerned with my irrational behavior) and soon became convinced that I was just emotionally reacting to a recent family event. I decided not to challenge that belief because I couldn’t imagine anything positive resulting from such a confrontation. More recently, I’ve adopted that lesson as a general guide to civilized behavior. In real life I rarely– if ever– challenge other peoples’ beliefs because the result is often divisive, frustrating, and futile.

It was around this time that I discovered Ayn Rand. Unlike some other atheist philosophers I’d found, she never made strange claims like “morality is completely relative” or “reality is a collective hallucination.” She presented a rational, objective philosophy that strongly resonated with me. Her writing had me absolutely entranced– I’m not surprised that she built “the unlikeliest cult in history.”

Inspired by her ideas, I constructed a proof at age 18 which attempted to show that God didn’t exist. It worked like this:

a

Assumption #1: An objective reality exists. In other words, reality is governed by laws of physics (currently known to us only as crude approximations) which are completely immutable. If I didn’t make this assumption, it seemed like I’d have to seriously consider the possibility that objects disappeared whenever I turned my head, then reappeared when I looked at them again.

Assumption #2: God needs to be able to violate those laws of physics in order to be literally omnipotent. I say this because it seems like humans might eventually be able to perform miracles similar to those recorded in the Bible if our descendants ever develop sufficiently advanced technology. But that wouldn’t make them gods (obviously) because they can’t possibly break the actual laws of physics.

Conclusion: The existence of God is incompatible with the assumption of a strictly objective reality. Because I’m unwilling to drop my belief in objective reality, I must conclude that an omnipotent God isn’t possible.

(Note that this argument says nothing about gods who are powerful but not literally omnipotent, like Greek gods.)

a

Because I believed that this argument ruled out the existence of an omnipotent God, I was a strong atheist regarding the deities of most monotheistic religions. (I remained agnostic with respect to non-omnipotent gods.)

It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized I’d made a dreadful mistake. Assumption #1 wasn’t indisputably true! I could think of at least two classes of statements that were less doubtful. Also, I hadn’t considered the possibility that people could accept a different version of assumption #1 that removed the conflict between the statements “an omnipotent God exists” and “I believe that objects don’t disappear when I turn my back on them.”

When I realized how arbitrary assumption #1 was, I had no choice but to abandon atheism and identify as a weak agnostic. Also around this time, I started realizing how blind I’d been to flaws in Rand’s philosophy. While I still consider Ayn Rand to be the strongest influence on my philosophical views, I disagree with her on several important issues. I also want nothing to do with Objectivist organizations that promote her philosophy.

So here I am, just as confused at age 28 as I was when I was 10…


Footnotes

  1. I define faith as “belief in a proposition that isn’t adequately supported by empirical evidence or logical arguments.” This definition is somewhat subjective; how does one decide the amount of evidence that’s “adequate” to support reasonable belief in a proposition?

    My answer is to say that the amount of evidence required is proportional to how “extraordinary” that proposition is. I determine the “extraordinariness” of a proposition by comparing it to previously established facts. For example, I believe in the existence of Moscow even though I’ve never seen it, but that’s because the existence of cities is an established fact to me. Also, if Moscow didn’t exist, that would require explaining why many newspaper stories feature it. On the other hand, in order to believe in the existence of an alien, I’d have to see it with my own eyes as well as proving to myself that it has no DNA or RNA. This is because I’ve never seen anything like an alien before- the established existence of an alien would be a huge change in my worldview.

    Note that this means the degree of “faith” in a person’s belief in a given proposition is relative to that person’s collection of previously established facts. This is a serious problem, as it only takes one false “fact” to throw a person’s reasoning out of contact with reality altogether, though he will believe himself to be perfectly rational in reference to his collection of “facts.” Because of this, I spend a lot of time trying to identify assumptions in my reasoning and questioning whether they’re actually necessary, or even if they’re just plain wrong.↩ back

  2. I define religion as “a system of beliefs that include supernatural elements.” (When I say “supernatural,” I mean “violates the actual laws of physics” rather than merely “violates the crude approximations we currently call the laws of physics.”) This includes nearly all monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems as well as some Eastern philosophies. I’m not certain that it includes Buddhism, though, because I haven’t studied Buddhism in enough detail to conclusively identify its supernatural beliefs.

    Note that I don’t consider faith to be a required element of religion. Some religious people are scrupulously rational, and seem to share my discomfort with the idea of using faith as a means to gain knowledge.↩ back

Last modified March 19th, 2013
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27 Responses to “My theological journey”

  1. Greetings! Saw your post in Google Blogsearch and came to read. Your post was far more interesting than the Google snippet suggested. Well done!

    You might consider re-examining Catholicism and its claims. There’s a good resource and a short video named “Epic” at:

    http://www.catholicscomehome.org

    If you’d like to test your agnostic theology, you’ll find lively forums at:

    http://forums.catholic.com

    Its seems everyone hangs out there. Atheists, agnostics, Muslims, just about every faith and non-faith. Lots of really good philosophical and theological discussions. Likely just the mind candy you crave.

    God bless… +Timothy

  2. MichaelM posted on 2008-11-28 at 11:14

    Thanks for the opportunity and great pleasure of reading your second-hand account of the history of my life – mischievous parochial school challenges to the implausible and all. We differ only in our timetables, as Rand put my mind in order by grounding it to objective reality at 28, and since no one changes their mind after 30, I am still on the same page with her 40 years later. So you can understand how disappointed I was to arrive at your capitulation to mysticism at the end of this piece and so close to your deadline.

    Agnosticism of any measure is the worst position of all. It attempts to deal with the validity of the answers by denying the validity of the question. Perhaps the deism of our founding fathers (Jefferson, Franklin, et al) would be a better holding pattern while you make up your mind. Recently I have taken to jostling the fence on which compulsive doubters sit with a parable I concocted inverting Pascal’s wager:

    ———-

    Now that Ayn Rand has finally demonstrated the efficacy of Reason to man in the 20th century, a new speculation about God has emerged, MichaelM’s Wager:

    “The existence of God cannot be determined through Reason. Though all men are free to “wager” as though God does exist (just to be on the safe side!) they should take into account that Reason would have to be God’s crowning creation and gift to man. It endows man with the capacity to grasp everything that exists in the universe that God wants man to be able to know and the capacity to use that knowledge to perfect his life. They should consider the possibility that God would not want to be known, but rather would prefer to observe from afar what men can achieve on their own with the capacities he gave them.

    After all, God would not have given man Reason if he did not want man to use it in accordance with its function. Furthermore, any rejection of Reason, such as the arbitrary replacement of it by the Satanic anti-capacity of Mysticism to fabricate false ideas of the universe, or worst of all, false ideas of the nature or will of God, would most certainly constitute the most damnable sin.

    Thus: man would need only one commandment: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt falsify neither gods before Me, nor the nature of Me or My creations.

    Thus: there would be only one mortal sin: the rejection of God’s Reason in favor of Satan’s Mysticism.

    Thus: in the end, Heaven would necessarily be occupied by God and all of the rational atheists who ever existed.

    Thus: all who abused the rational minds God gave them and stubbornly clung with nothing more than Faith to religions that worshipped allegedly revealed gods would necessarily reside with Satan in the fires of Hell for eternity.”

    Thus: it would perhaps be better not to “wager” on the existence of God after all.

    ————-

    In the end, I was stunned and flabbergasted to see you so casually report that you had overthrown all your right thinking since childhood by swapping your long standing commitment to the primacy of existence for Descarte’s inversion. He could not have thought without existing – consciousness is ever a corollary of existence, not the reverse: I am, therefore I think (I am grasping existence)! Identity is likewise a corollary of existence, and not the reverse.

    You cannot prove supernatural beings do not exist. But, at the same time, you may not believe they do without defining them, and you cannot define a consciousness that is prior to existence. All definitions presuppose existence. No human need be concerned with entities that cannot be defined.

    That’s what my wager proposes to theists. You have what you believe to be your God-given reason to grasp and deal with what you believe to be God-given existence. What prompts you to believe that God would demand renunciation of the ability He gave you so you could just make up stuff based on the whims euphemistically called Faith?

    You are right to disregard the peripheral organizations and even Rand herself. It’s not about them or her, it’s about the ideas. If you get a little better grip on them, they will not disappoint you … and there’s no time like the present for that; your intellectual courage clock is ticking … 28, … 29, … 30 BONG!

    • First of all, thanks for the feedback.

      Agnosticism of any measure is the worst position of all. It attempts to deal with the validity of the answers by denying the validity of the question.

      Strong agnostics assert that no one knows if God exists. I’m a weak agnostic– I’m just saying that I personally don’t know if God exists. I don’t see how either variant denies the validity of the question.

      Perhaps you meant ignostics, who really do deny the validity of the question of God’s existence by saying that we can’t define “God” precisely enough for the question of His existence to be meaningful. I don’t see how this makes ignosticism the “worst” position, though…

      Perhaps the deism of our founding fathers (Jefferson, Franklin, et al) would be a better holding pattern while you make up your mind.

      Deists believe that a conscious God created the universe. While I acknowledge this possibility, I can’t justify believing in a conscious First Cause based on the evidence I’ve seen so far.

      I’ve even considered taking Einstein’s route and calling myself a pantheist. I don’t have any philosophical problems with pantheism because it drops the “conscious” part. But claiming to believe in God under those terms seems disingenuous to me because most people don’t define God as being identical to the laws of nature.

      One of the reasons I hesitated for so long to identify as an agnostic was precisely because people assume agnostics are just going through a temporary phase– that they’re in a holding pattern, waiting to make up their minds.

      My theological views are accompanied by doubt, but that’s true for all my beliefs. I consider agnosticism to be a potentially permanent philosophical position, just like any other.

      In the end, I was stunned and flabbergasted to see you so casually report

      Just for the record, there was nothing “casual” about it. I’m inclined to be intensely arrogant, and admitting when I’m wrong isn’t getting any easier despite the worrying frequency of these confessions. That’s why I created this website. I hope that subjecting my opinions to criticism will make it easier for me to be capable of changing my mind after I turn 30, should that become necessary.

      He could not have thought without existing – consciousness is ever a corollary of existence, not the reverse: I am, therefore I think (I am grasping existence)! Identity is likewise a corollary of existence, and not the reverse.

      I’m familiar with that argument; I even find it somewhat enlightening. However, I don’t think Descartes was arguing that existence depends on consciousness. Rather, he was saying that existence could be very different than our senses make it appear, because we could just be brains floating in jars inside a mad scientist’s lab, with fake stimuli fed into our brains via electrodes.

      I regard this as an absurd scenario, but I can’t confidently rule it out. That’s all Descartes was saying– we might be in The Matrix, but the fact that we’re thinking means we exist. So I don’t really understand why Rand criticized his famous statement– it’s not clear to me that their views on this subject are all that different.

      (Incidentally, I’ve run into other confusing examples of the same nature. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative seems similar to Rand’s ethics, despite the obvious contempt Rand had for Kant.)

      You cannot prove supernatural beings do not exist. But, at the same time, you may not believe they do without defining them, and you cannot define a consciousness that is prior to existence. All definitions presuppose existence. No human need be concerned with entities that cannot be defined.

      In other words… we should deny the validity of the question of God’s existence because God can’t be defined?

      It’s not about them or her, it’s about the ideas. If you get a little better grip on them, they will not disappoint you … and there’s no time like the present for that; your intellectual courage clock is ticking …

      Atheists and theists alike believe that they’ve arrived at the “right” answer, which is psychologically comforting. I’m committed to following the scientific method, even if it means that I have to admit that I simply don’t know if God exists. This gaping hole in my knowledge bothers me on a regular basis. Which position do you think requires more intellectual courage?

      Also, I found your wager very interesting. It seems related to Richard Dawkins’ criticism of Pascal’s wager. I pretty much agree– it seems like God should be annoyed with people who believe in Him just on the basis of the expected rewards. I always thought that He’d be insulted by such blatant theological gambling…

      • MichaelM posted on 2008-11-28 at 23:29

        Strong agnostics assert that no one knows if God exists. I’m a weak agnostic– I’m just saying that I personally don’t know if God exists. I don’t see how either variant denies the validity of the question.

        Both establish evasion as a position and with the assumption there are no consequences for that. Also, both engage in a deceit that pretends to a continued presence of possibility sans any evidence to warrant the suggestion of it. As a brief transitional position it is forgivable. As a “permanent philosophical position” it is intellectually self-crippling.

        ——-

        It’s true my theological views are accompanied by doubt, but this is true for all my beliefs.

        … which means that your belief in the truth of both of these statements is also accompanied by doubt.

        I don’t think Descartes was arguing that existence depends on consciousness. Rather, he was saying that existence could be very different than our senses make it appear,…

        Familiarity with the specifics of what he actually meant is too distant in my past, but you are here accusing him of entertaining the notion that the senses could be invalid. That is truly an absurd and untenable position. Our sensory perceptions are the given. We do not have any other access to the nature of existence. To be is to be something as perceived. All of our knowledge is therefore formulated within that context. All of it is derived from the relationships among those perceptions.

        ——-

        As for a similarity between Kant and Rand, you characterized it as such but did not show that it actually applies.

        ——-

        In other words… we should deny the validity of the question of God’s existence because God can’t be defined?

        Almost. We should not continue to entertain the assertion of the existence of an entity absent a coherent definition of its location and nature. Alien beings may exist (metaphysically) in some distant but currently unknowable galaxy. Until evidence is acquired, however, to establish their existence as possible, probable, or certain, for all practical purposes, they do not exist. Beyond the entertainment value, such concepts have no other practical use.

        ——-

        Which position do you think requires more intellectual courage?

        The position that is held with conscious disregard for the social burden of the cultural context in which you and I were raised. The one that exaggerates the scale of the issue’s importance to life. In Objectivism, atheism is but a minor conclusion – a necessary consequence of prior conclusions.

      • Both establish evasion as a position and with the assumption there are no consequences for that. Also, both engage in a deceit that pretends to a continued presence of possibility sans any evidence to warrant the suggestion of it. As a brief transitional position it is forgivable. As a “permanent philosophical position” it is intellectually self-crippling.

        I don’t think evidence is needed to “warrant the suggestion of the possibility” of any idea. It’s just necessary to show that the idea doesn’t conflict with available evidence, and that it isn’t inherently contradictory. The notion of God doesn’t conflict with any evidence that I can see (admittedly because the concept seems designed to bypass any such tests.) I also haven’t been able to conclusively identify God’s internal contradictions (admittedly because there are so many infinite qualities involved that it hurts my head.)

        I don’t understand how this approach to gaining knowledge is “intellectually self-crippling.” It just seems like an extension of the maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claim that God exists is extraordinary, and requires extraordinary evidence. But the claim that God certainly doesn’t exist also sounds pretty extraordinary to me…

        … which means that your belief in the truth of both of these statements is also accompanied by doubt.

        A vanishingly small amount of doubt, perhaps. I’d say those statements belong in level 1. They’re pretty close to being certain because all I’m really doing is describing the content of my own mind.

        … you are here accusing him of entertaining the notion that the senses could be invalid. That is truly an absurd and untenable position. Our sensory perceptions are the given. We do not have any other access to the nature of existence. To be is to be something as perceived. All of our knowledge is therefore formulated within that context. All of it is derived from the relationships among those perceptions.

        I recognize how important sensory input is to knowledge, which is why I assume my senses are mostly valid in level 3. I’m just explicitly stating that it’s an assumption which could– in principle– be wrong.

        And I’m not completely convinced that all our knowledge comes from our senses. I realize that Rand rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction but I’ve got to admit that I never really understood her reasoning. Statements in levels 1,2 (such as “2+2=4″) just seem fundamentally different than those in levels 3 and higher (such as “water at standard pressure boils at 100° C”). Her arguments to the contrary have always left me feeling confused.

        Alien beings may exist (metaphysically) in some distant but currently unknowable galaxy. Until evidence is acquired, however, to establish their existence as possible, probable, or certain, for all practical purposes, they do not exist.

        This approach to epistemology is one of the problems I have with Objectivism. You seem to be saying that we can be certain that aliens don’t exist… until and unless we see evidence of them.

        I simply don’t see how I could be certain of something, yet allow for the possibility that I was wrong. I’d rather remain agnostic regarding aliens– I haven’t seen any evidence either way, so I want to remain open to the possibility that they exist. (To be clear, I’ve never seen good evidence for the existence of aliens.)

        I don’t reject Rand’s epistemology entirely, though. For instance, I agree that concepts are formed by measurement omission.

        As for a similarity between Kant and Rand, you characterized it as such but did not show that it actually applies.

        Rand was dissatisfied with the subjective moralities of most atheist philosophers. She proposed that an objective morality can be derived by assuming that an individual’s life is his own ultimate value. This is the only value which justifies itself, so it terminates what would otherwise be a logically absurd infinite sequence of values and justifications. Socially, this results in treating other people as though they’re ends in themselves, rather than means to some other end.

        Kant was dissatisfied with the subjective moralities of most atheist philosophers. He proposed that an objective morality can be derived by assuming that an action is only moral if its justification could be applied universally without logical contradictions. Socially, this results in treating other people as though they’re ends in themselves, rather than means to some other end.

        Their ethics aren’t identical, of course. And I’m partial to Rand’s system– I try to follow a slightly modified version of her morality to this day. But Kant’s ethical conclusions seem startlingly similar to Rand’s, and his approach shares the same distaste for subjective moral systems. I fail to see why Rand essentially appointed Kant the “devil” of Objectivism, but that’s probably because I don’t fully understand her objections…

      • MichaelM posted on 2008-11-29 at 22:13

        I don’t think evidence is needed to “warrant the suggestion of the possibility” of any idea. It’s just necessary to show that the idea doesn’t conflict with available evidence, and that it isn’t inherently contradictory.

        The requirement for evidence to demonstrate possibility is necessary to distinguish it from arbitrary claims that are not internally or externally contradictory. Your notion of God is one of the latter. Wholly undefined and unsubstantiated in any way, it is divorced from the stuff of cognition and knowledge. It does not contradict because nothing measurable against all other knowledge is provided.

        I’m short on time tonight, so re the crippling effects of agnosticism, go here: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/agnosticism.html

        ————-

        I recognize how important sensory input is to knowledge, which is why I assume my senses are mostly valid in level 3. I’m just explicitly stating that it’s an assumption which could– in principle– be wrong.

        The Objectivist position is that the validity of the senses is an axiom – a corollary of consciousness. To be conscious of existence is to be conscious of sensory perceptions of existence. It is the primary form of consciousness and the starting point for forming all concepts and conclusions about existence. The concept of “proof” means reduction to the evidence of sensory perception. Your position would add an additional requirement: the perceptions you reduce to must themselves be proven to be valid. But how would one reduce a sensory perception to the evidence of sensory perceptions?

        ——————

        This approach to epistemology is one of the problems I have with Objectivism. You seem to be saying that we can be certain that aliens don’t exist… until and unless we see evidence of them.

        No. Knowledge, validity, and certainty are all inherently contextual. They may only be justifiably claimed on the basis of available evidence. When they are, future discoveries will only augment, not refute them. So long as no evidence of the existence of aliens exists, the concept will just continue to be arbitrary.

        ——————-

        Also in the lexicon you will find some Rand et al on Kant stuff: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/kant.html

      • The requirement for evidence to demonstrate possibility is necessary to distinguish it from arbitrary claims that are not internally or externally contradictory. Your notion of God is one of the latter. Wholly undefined and unsubstantiated in any way, it is divorced from the stuff of cognition and knowledge. It does not contradict because nothing measurable against all other knowledge is provided.

        It sounds like we’re saying the same thing using different words. You’re calling the concept of God “arbitrary” while I relegate it to level 6. You’re calling falsifiable statements “possible” while I put them in level 4.

        The concept of “proof” means reduction to the evidence of sensory perception. Your position would add an additional requirement: the perceptions you reduce to must themselves be proven to be valid. But how would one reduce a sensory perception to the evidence of sensory perceptions?

        Perceptions need to be proven valid only in extreme cases. For instance, sometimes I see specks in my vision, or hear disembodied buzzing noises. In these cases, I regard my senses as invalid. I think the specks I see are small imperfections in my eyes, but I don’t know what causes the occasional buzzing noise.

        Most of the time, though, I agree that it’s pointless to argue about the validity of the senses. I just don’t see why I should assume that my senses are infallible, which seems like a prerequisite to treating the validity of my senses as an axiom on the same level as “1+1=2″.

        No. Knowledge, validity, and certainty are all inherently contextual. They may only be justifiably claimed on the basis of available evidence. When they are, future discoveries will only augment, not refute them.

        That’s another tenet of Objectivism that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but I’ve made a lot of discoveries that have refuted knowledge I previously considered to be true. Genuine Objectivists never make conceptual mistakes, though, because none of their discoveries refute prior knowledge.

        I realize that the keyword here is “contextual.” Newtonian mechanics is still valid in the context of low speeds even though we now regard relativity to be more accurate in a wider context of higher speeds. But I think new discoveries sometimes invalidate old knowledge even within its original context. For instance, the 1998 discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe refutes the idea that the expansion of the universe will one day reverse, eventually leading to a re-collapse. Before 1998, many physicists (myself included) believed that the universe’s expansion must be slowing down– and I think we were right to draw that conclusion from the evidence available at the time. But we were completely wrong.

        Sometimes, the evidence simply leads me in the wrong direction. Thus I have to conclude that I’m not infallible enough to be an Objectivist.

        Also in the lexicon you will find some Rand et al on Kant stuff…

        I agree that Kant’s philosophy looks evil when Rand or her followers summarize it. Kant apparently bases his moral system on “duty” to others, and talks endlessly about self-sacrifice. So it’s not surprising that Objectivists say things like “Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history.”

        But I started thinking that Rand might not be the best source for information about Kant’s philosophy. So I skipped the intermediaries and read his writing for myself. What I found is that Kant’s concept of “duty” was more akin to “duty to the truth.” His views on charity turned out to be similar to David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism.

        Again, I’m not saying I think Kant’s morality is superior to Rand’s. I like Rand’s ethics, though admittedly I’m skeptical of her claim that it’s the objectively correct moral system. I just don’t understand why she hated him so much.

      • MichaelM posted on 2008-11-30 at 10:06

        It sounds like we’re saying the same thing using different words. You’re calling the concept of God “arbitrary” while I relegate it to level 6. You’re calling falsifiable statements “possible” while I put them in level 4.

        No, it sounds rather like your levels are a ruse to enable the evasion of conclusions.

        sometimes I see specks in my vision, or hear disembodied buzzing noises. In these cases, I regard my senses as invalid. I think the specks I see are small imperfections in my eyes, but I don’t know what causes the occasional buzzing noise.

        You saw them and heard them for what they were. You were not able to accurately identify them or their cause because you exercised your fallibility. It is futile and useless to muse over some other relationship between sensations and existents, because they are your only means of awareness and so such a difference can never be but a fantasy. The concept of invalid perceptions is useless.

        I just don’t see why I should assume that my senses are infallible,…

        Neither do I, because the concept “infallible” is inapplicable to your senses. It only applies to volition, a capacity your senses do not have.

        I’ve made a lot of discoveries that have refuted knowledge I previously considered to be true.

        You may not use conclusions you made beyond the context of your knowledge to deny that all knowledge is contextual.
        You may not use your fallibility to deny that all knowledge is contextual.

        Sometimes, the evidence simply leads me in the wrong direction. Thus I have to conclude that I’m not infallible enough to be an Objectivist.

        Great. Your skepticism is so total, even your ad hominems are packaged in self-deprecation. It is systemic. No matter how brilliantly you process your knowledge and ideas, you cannot resist closing with the same boilerplate: “but I don’t understand…”, “but I don’t see why…”, but I still don’t believe…”, without exception.

        I entered this discussion fully aware that your blog title was fair warning. And so it is that the intellectual precociousness and bright-eyed self confidence one can experience in the story of your childhood faded whenever you descended into your now full commitment to skepticism, and that has reduced you to an otherwise unearned state of self-nurtured dumbness. My eyelids grow heavy at the mere thought of looking for what words could constitute a swift kick in the butt of your brain to dislodge you from your permanent position on the fence.

        I read of your search for an objective framework for the evaluation of art. After 3 degrees in art, design, and humanities, and 45 years experience, nothing outside of or within Rand’s philosophy can exceed the efficacy of her objective aesthetics. I toyed with the idea of migrating our discussion to that subject to demonstrate its capacity to answer your explicit plea. Then I threw a little cold water on my face realizing that would just be begging for more “but I don’t see why” replies to my explanations of why.

        So I will just point you there and say godspeed! Although most of her concepts use literature as examples, it is completely applicable to all of the arts. When she takes you to conclusions like: abstract art is a redundancy – non-objective art is a contradiction, I am confident you will totally understand it and agree. But where are you going to get the courage to take it out into the culture wars in the real world and live by it and fight for it?

        …28, …29…, 30… BONG!

  3. Reythia posted on 2008-12-03 at 15:17

    Familiarity with the specifics of what he actually meant is too distant in my past, but you are here accusing him of entertaining the notion that the senses could be invalid. That is truly an absurd and untenable position. Our sensory perceptions are the given. We do not have any other access to the nature of existence. To be is to be something as perceived. All of our knowledge is therefore formulated within that context. All of it is derived from the relationships among those perceptions.

    With due respect, Michael, this sort of logic has always appeared to have holes in it to me. First off, sensory information is NOT always correct. Anyone who’s ever felt the room spin when drunk knows that. Despite what your senses say, the room is not spinning. An objective witness — or a mechanical accelerometer — will verify that for you. Similarly, despite what a colorblind person might say, two pieces of red and green paper DO reflect light at measurably different frequencies. Sensory information is usually right, but not always.

    More importantly, though, even valid sensory information may bring a rational, logical person to an inaccurate conclusion. The old story about the three blind men feeling the elephant comes immediately to mind. All three were receiving and processing valid sensory signals, but they each drew a different — and wrong — conclusion to their puzzle, simply because they did not have all the information they needed to judge better. Accurate sensory information does not guarantee an accurate conclusion of more complicated systems.

    Secondly, relating to this comment:

    I don’t think evidence is needed to “warrant the suggestion of the possibility” of any idea. It’s just necessary to show that the idea doesn’t conflict with available evidence, and that it isn’t inherently contradictory. The notion of God doesn’t conflict with any evidence that I can see (admittedly because the concept seems designed to bypass any such tests.) I also haven’t been able to conclusively identify God’s internal contradictions (admittedly because there are so many infinite qualities involved that it hurts my head.)

    I don’t understand how this approach to gaining knowledge is “intellectually self-crippling.” It just seems like an extension of the maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claim that God exists is extraordinary, and requires extraordinary evidence. But the claim that God certainly doesn’t exist also sounds pretty extraordinary to me…

    I have to agree with DS on this. I have never seen any convincing evidence PROVING that God exists. (And since you’re an atheist, I assume you agree.) However, I have also not seen any convincing evidence that God does NOT exist. This, of course, could simply be the usual difficulty of proving a negative. On the other hand, it could also be because the theory “God does not exist” is wrong. The point that both DS and I are making is that without evidence one way or the other, we cannot be SURE.

    We can, of course, make judgment calls. DS chooses to believe, despite the lack of evidence, that there is no God. I choose to believe, despite the lack of evidence, that there is a God. Both of us recognize that we could be wrong. Once some good evidence is found, one of us will have to change our opinion. But until then, what right does anyone have to tell us we are CERTAINLY wrong?

    Michael, you seem to be telling us that I am certainly wrong in my opinion and that both DS and I are wrong in our belief that we could be wrong. Alright, in that case, prove it. For a fellow who apparently despises “evasions”, I expect you have a clear and certain answer. What evidence do you have that God CERTAINLY does not exist?

    • DS chooses to believe, despite the lack of evidence, that there is no God.”

      Not exactly. I see no way to reach a firm conclusion about God’s existence. I’m a weak agnostic.

      Technically speaking this means I “lack belief in God” but that’s quite a bit different than “believing there is no God” which is the way strong atheism is usually defined.

      I usually explain the difference between these positions by comparing them to my positions on the existence of Bigfoot and square circles. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a square circle because the idea’s self-contradicting, so I’m an “atheist” regarding square circles.

      I’ve seen no convincing evidence of Bigfoot, so I lack belief that Bigfoot exists. But I emphatically don’t “believe there is no Bigfoot” because that would require searching the entire planet and finding no Bigfoot. I haven’t done that, and I don’t care to try. Thus I’m an “agnostic” regarding Bigfoot.

      (Note that I’m completely ignoring the definition of weak atheism because I don’t see any substantial difference between weak atheism and weak agnosticism. I don’t use the term weak atheism because it seems superfluous.)

      I used to think that a literally omnipotent God could be disproven in the same way as square circles (see the attempted proof at the end of the article). But I no longer have confidence in that argument because assumption #1 (an objective reality exists) could be replaced, and I can’t experimentally tell the difference. So I’m a weak agnostic now.

      Once some good evidence is found, one of us will have to change our opinion.

      I can certainly imagine being forced by evidence to believe in several “classes” of deities:

      1. I could find an unambiguous message from God hidden in the digits of pi. This would convince me that an omnipotent, conscious God exists who has control over mathematics. I consider this to be the most powerful type of omnipotence– the ability to say “1+1=3″ and make it true.

      2. God could appear to me in person and tutor me in “real” physics, explaining the “theory of everything” to me from first principles, then proving that theory correct. He could then violate that theory in front of my eyes to prove His omnipotence. This would convince me that an omnipotent, personal God exists who has the ability to violate the actual laws of physics.

      3. God could appear to me directly or perform a miracle in front of my eyes. Because this could be faked by “sufficiently advanced technology,” I don’t regard this as convincing proof of literal omnipotence, which requires the ability to break the actual laws of physics. However, it’d be proof of “godlike” power and definitely worth considerable further investigation.

      But I can’t imagine any evidence convincing me that God certainly doesn’t exist. There will always be unanswered questions, and God could always be listed among the possible answers. Even after the theory of everything is discovered, you could still ask why that theory was turned into a real universe rather than simply remaining a theory.

      My point is, you said “Once some good evidence is found, one of us will have to change our opinion.” I disagree. I can think of three hypothetical scenarios in which I’d be convinced to believe in (some type of) God, but I can’t imagine what could ever force you to change your opinion. Can you?

      Oh, and those sensory examples were much better than mine. Bravo!

      • Reythia posted on 2008-12-04 at 13:03

        Technically speaking this means I “lack belief in God” but that’s quite a bit different than “believing there is no God” which is the way strong atheism is usually defined.

        Explain to me the practical difference between these two lines:

        1. I lack belief in God.
        2. I do not believe in God, but I accept that I may be wrong about that.

        The first is what you said, the second what I said (though I said it in two sentences last time). For reference, I agree that this third sentence is notably different from both of the others:

        3. I do not believe in God, and my disbelief is such that I also do not believe I could be wrong in this.

      • The difference lies in the implications of the phrases “I lack belief in God” and “I believe that there is no God.” (See the Bigfoot/square circle analogy above.)

        Note that your second comment used the phrase “I do not believe in God, but I accept that I may be wrong about that.” I’ll accept that characterization (grudgingly, as it implies I’m taking a position other than ignorance), but your previous phrase was different: “DS chooses to believe, despite the lack of evidence, that there is no God.”

        This probably seems like a technicality, but I didn’t want anyone skimming this article to think that I’m still a strong atheist based on that sentence, when I’m actually a weak agnostic. You see, the problem is that many non-theists use these two phrases to describe the difference between atheism and agnosticism, and they never bother to add “… my disbelief is such that I don’t believe I’m wrong” because that’s assumed to be implied in the phrase “I believe there is no God.”

        I’m much more interested in your answer to the question I posed at the end of that comment, so I’m sorry that I diverted your attention to my grammatical obsessions.

  4. Reythia posted on 2008-12-03 at 15:18

    Oooh! Look at that! I got my quotes to work! *happy happy!*

  5. I am teaching a sort of philosophy intro here at CHS, conceived as a way to converse with students like you were in high school.

    Given your chosen course of study and your persistent questions, I thought you might like to look at this resource:

    http://www.metanexus.org

    It is an organization founded to advance the discussion between science and religion, and has some excellent articles. It is funded by the Templeton foundation—which also awards a large annual cash prize to the individual who had done the most, in their opinion, in that area. Last year’s winner was a Polish Catholic priest and respected physicist: Michael Heller http://www.templetonprize.org/bios.html

    Hope you find food for thought there. It isn’t a confessional organization, or prosletyzing—it is a serious group of people asking big serious questions and letting the inquiry lead where it may.

    Peace,

    Tom Eldringhoff

    • I’m reading through old articles right now. So far it’s definitely a cut above anything else I’ve seen. Thanks!

      • Have you found “The Global Spiral”? It is their online publication. I recommend their Big questions stuff, and have a hard copy (it’s all available online) of the collection of brief essays (from both sides) on “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

        Also recommend stuff from John Polkinghorne, a respected physicist, and recently ordained (late in his life) Anglican priest. His book “Belief in God in an Age of Science” is a good intro to some major issues. He won the Templeton prize a few years back. Be sure to check out some of Heller’s stuff–you’ll get the physics way more than me.

        I suppose you get I’m on the God side of the discussion–but there is no reason for faith or religion to be ignorant or duck the hard stuff. Happy hunting.

      • Have you found “The Global Spiral”?

        Yes, the article that impressed me was about intelligent design.

        “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

        Before reading those essays I’ll opine that the only belief made obsolete by science is that held by a young-earth creationist. Sixteen centuries ago, St. Augustine wrote “It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters [of natural knowledge].”

        Unfortunately, his advice seems to fall on many deaf ears here in the United States.

        More sophisticated concepts of God are untouched (and untouchable) by science, and provide answers to questions that lie outside the domain of science like “why are we here?” and “what defines a good life?”.

        (Note that I’m not saying God is the only answer to those questions; I think it’s possible to define a moral life without God. My point is that God’s competitor in this arena is humanistic philosophy, not science.)

      • While I don’t have time right now to read his books, here are my reactions to John Polkinghorne’s thoughts on the existence of God:

        Polkinghorne considers that “the question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality”

        I wholeheartedly agree.

        … and quotes with approval Anthony Kenny: “After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination.”

        An interesting point, but in my opinion the popularity of belief in a proposition (even widespread, systematic popularity) doesn’t necessarily say anything about the truth of that proposition. The proposition’s popularity may be influenced by its appeal in addition to its accuracy, and I’ve no conclusive way to tell which is the greater influence.

        The intelligibility of the universe: One would anticipate that evolutionary selection would produce hominid minds apt for coping with everyday experience, but that these minds should also be able to understand the subatomic world and general relativity goes far beyond anything of relevance to survival fitness. The mystery deepens when one recognizes the proven fruitfulness of mathematical beauty as a guide to successful theory choice.

        1. Actually, I’m not sure that hominid minds are a product of evolution I should anticipate in all cases. It’s not necessarily surprising given the emergence of multi-cellular life forms, but the leap from bacteria to multi-cellular life has always seemed improbable to me. My current best guess at abiogenesis suggests that the biosphere initially filled up with very simple– and thus tiny and lightweight– replicators. Any larger mutated individual would have to derive a serious reproductive benefit from that extra mass to offset the hardship of competing for a fixed amount of resources with its slimmer cousins. I don’t see any compelling reason for life to evolve past the bacterial stage without some outside impetus.

          As a result, I support the idea that a series of extreme glaciation periods (each lasting millions of years) triggered the Cambrian explosion. In other words, most of the single celled life on the planet went extinct during the Snowball, and the few individuals that survived spread out into the empty wasteland without such grueling population pressures. The resulting mutations led to multi-cellular life forms and eventually intelligent humans.

          Because Earth’s geophysical history can’t be assumed to be universal, this means that evolution may not be as likely to lead to multi-cellular life as I used to think. As a result, I would not “anticipate that evolutionary selection would produce hominid minds apt for coping with everyday experience.”

        2. However, given the evolution of complex life forms, I would expect evolution to solve the predator-prey relationship (on both sides, but primarily the predator’s more challenging side) by the same method it employs in other circumstances. That is, evolution generally follows the simplest path– the set of mutations which are most likely to occur by chance, each of which confers an advantage on its own.

          I’m not surprised, therefore, that the simplest (effective) hunting mechanism is a general neural network, which functions as a sort of general purpose computer (though the brain is likely analog rather than digital). (Aside: some physicists propose that the brain is a quantum computer rather than a classical analog computer, but I’m heavily skeptical of this claim because a quantum computer’s inherent vulnerability to decoherence effects seems to make it more complicated. Also, I don’t understand Gödel’s incompleteness theorems well enough to judge the claim that sapient intelligence requires a quantum computer, nor do I see how such a problem would be solved by a different type of computer– even one as radically different as a quantum computer.)

          As a result, I’m not inclined to believe that there should be any inherent limits to our minds other than speed and capacity. The primary mystery for me is why other creatures don’t appear to have the same capabilities. I think that’s because we’ve evolved down a fairly unusual path– one without sharp claws or elaborate camouflage. An animal with advantages like these doesn’t need to grow a large, oxygen-hungry brain because physical prowess is sufficient.

          Plus, we have opposable thumbs which multiplies the advantage of intelligence by allowing for tool use (though a cephalopod’s tentacles work well too). But that can’t be sufficient, otherwise chimps and squids would be getting Nobel prizes. I’m tempted to say our language is responsible, but I’m not convinced that our language is more information-rich than the calls of other great apes, cetaceans or cephalopods.

          I agree that there is mystery to be found in his statement, but I think it’s better phrased as “why exactly did humans evolve brains with more ‘plasticity’ and capacity for abstract thought than other species?”

        3. I heartily concur that reality is filled with what I consider to be mathematical beauty. But I view this as evidence that math is beautiful, and I don’t see how that’s necessarily connected to God.

        4. Furthermore, he’s right that mathematics is successful in the sense that it has repeatedly been a guide to creating more accurate physical theories. But that’s not surprising to me either, because it seems like the set of all math is probably larger than the union of all the subsets of math which contain structures resembling physical laws. (I say this because physics has an additional constraint that math doesn’t share: experiment.)

          What I’m saying is that I think the possibilities of mathematics are so vast that you can’t help but find mathematical structures which predict physical phenomena. This is only because there are so many mathematical structures to choose from, though. In fact, none of the mathematical structures we’ve selected as models for reality so far are completely accurate or universal (they’re all just approximations which apply to selected phenomena). This suggests to me that we’re basically pulling mathematical rules out at random.

          (I do believe that the ultimate laws of physics are mathematical, but again this says more to me about math than God.)

        The anthropic fine tuning of the universe: He quotes with approval Freeman Dyson, who said “the more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming” and suggests there is a wide consensus amongst physicists that either there are a very large number of other universes in the Multiverse or that “there is just one universe which is the way it is in its anthropic fruitfulness because it is the expression of the purposive design of a Creator, who has endowed it with the finely tuned potentiality for life.

        I completely agree that this apparent coincidence needs to be explained. If the explanation involves multiple universes, I would like to see falsifiable evidence that they exist, rather than mere supposition. I’m also considering the possibility that life can exist even in universes with apparently inhospitable physical constants, albeit in a drastically different form.

        A wider humane reality: He considers that theism offers a more persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. He argues that it is difficult to accommodate the idea that “we have real moral knowledge” and that “statements such as ‘torturing children is wrong’ are more than “simply social conventions of the societies within which they are uttered” within an atheistic or naturalistic world view. He also believes such a world view finds it hard to explain how “Something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity.”

        I think theism is certainly a more appealing explanation for moral rules. It involves (much!) less subjectivity, provides the certainty that evil people are punished (even if only in the next life), and provides an answer to questions like the meaning of life.

        That appeal is precisely why I’m wary of the idea. I’m too biased towards believing that it’s true; I’m not entirely sure I trust my own judgment in the matter.

        (I really don’t understand what he means about beauty of the natural world. I haven’t believed in God since I was 12 years old– 16 years ago– and the beauty of this marvelous universe brings me to tears on occasion. Yet again, I don’t see how this is related to God.)

        Thanks for the reference. I wish I had more time to look over his ideas…

      • Tom posted on 2008-12-07 at 07:18

        Very much to consider–tell me how to quote your comments so I can respond effectively, that is, how do you get the indent with the bar down the left side?

        To say something about your last remark: C.S. Peirce, an American philosopher contended that beauty was itself a reason for theism. His notion that our capacity to select which hypotheses to test was influenced by an evolved sense of beauty. He named the skill abduction and considered it an additional reasoning ability along with induction and deduction. The appeal of the God hypothesis is thus something to recommend it, at least for testing. You make a number of important points where it is clear you understand that the idea of God makes certain realities we encounter more intelligible rather than less.

      • I’m using HTML blockquote tags to do that.

        I’ll hold off on my response until then (partially because I’m reading up on C.S. Peirce) but I’ll briefly note that “intelligible” wouldn’t be my chosen term. I’d rather say that theism is appealing for many reasons unconnected to its accuracy, which makes me uncomfortably biased towards believing in God. The fine-tuned universe is a mystery, but it’s not clear that the answer is “God,” and I think that resolving this mystery in that manner raises more questions than it solves.

  6. Tom posted on 2008-12-07 at 11:01

    Polkinghorne considers that “the question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality”

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    As do I.

    … and quotes with approval Anthony Kenny: “After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination.”

    An interesting point, but in my opinion the popularity of belief in a proposition (even widespread, systematic popularity) doesn’t necessarily say anything about the truth of that proposition. The proposition’s popularity may be influenced by its appeal in addition to its accuracy, and I’ve no conclusive way to tell which is the greater influence.

    I don’t assume that “greatest” here means popular. Though I don’t know the context, I imagine it more likely means something more like “most profound” or “most far-reaching” or something related more to significance that popularity.

    I agree that there is mystery to be found in his statement, but I think it’s better phrased as “why exactly did humans evolve brains with more ‘plasticity’ and capacity for abstract thought than other species?”

    Either way you phrase the question, it doesn’t seem intuitively true that what we have should have come to pass other than it somehow being part of the nature of things. Emergent properties, like the kind of mind we have, seem to be built in to the universe, and a theistic universe accounts for that better, at least for the moment, than an atheistic one.

    I heartily concur that reality is filled with what I consider to be mathematical beauty. But I view this as evidence that math is beautiful, and I don’t see how that’s necessarily connected to God.

    You can see how it is connected to God, but not necessarily, right? There won’t be any necessary connections, that is, logical paths that lead one to conclude, without doubt, that God is real. It would seem that beauty is connected to reality as such, that the beauty of a formula is in fact a recommendation for its veracity, that truth and beauty are connected. Each of those realities is also a subjective reality—subjects know truth, experience beauty, and the experience of their unity is a natural impetus to a quest for an absolute unity, namely, God.

    What I’m saying is that I think the possibilities of mathematics are so vast that you can’t help but find mathematical structures which predict physical phenomena.

    I’m not fully versed in the math, but it seems to me that math is still constrained by logic. That math itself, is real, not invented. I don’t know that simply saying that math is vast and physics is small by comparison explains the descriptive ability of math. Perhaps there are realities that math describes of which we still are not aware, but that is speculative. The reality of math is the larger point, I think, and again, its ability to be understood by a subject.

    I completely agree that this apparent coincidence needs to be explained. If the explanation involves multiple universes, I would like to see falsifiable evidence that they exist, rather than mere supposition. I’m also considering the possibility that life can exist even in universes with apparently inhospitable physical constants, albeit in a drastically different form.

    If the ultimate question is “why is there something rather than nothing” then a multiverse doesn’t solve the problem. The two responses are, and this isn’t my idea but it is sound: 1. You can’t ask that question, the universe just is. 2. There is an explanation for the whole thing—meaning, purpose, math, beauty, physics.

    Goes to Polkinghorne’s point—the God question is the question. A universe or multiverse, is experienced through its constituent pieces, each of which is contingent. The sum of all we perceive, universe or multiverse, is a contingent reality. Our desire, need, penchant, call it what you will, to explain is either a cruel joke, or pointing toward a necessary reality, God, that can ground the contingent reality we experience. A simple formulation of the question points out that the atheist, at the end of the day, must conclude that the fact of the universe, or multiverse, is an unintelligible fact, having no explanation. The theist at least offers a necessary reality as explanation. The common response is that there is no difference between saying “the universe just is” than “God just is” but I disagree. The universe is observable, and its parts are discovered to be contingent, caused, dependent. God (you understand I’m using that word in its broadest sense) is what is meant by that reality which is not those things, and whose reality renders the rest of it intelligible—as I believe many of your considerations below make clear.

    A wider humane reality: He considers that theism offers a more persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. He argues that it is difficult to accommodate the idea that “we have real moral knowledge” and that “statements such as ‘torturing children is wrong’ are more than “simply social conventions of the societies within which they are uttered” within an atheistic or naturalistic world view. He also believes such a world view finds it hard to explain how “Something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity.”

    I think theism is certainly a more appealing explanation for moral rules. It involves (much!) less subjectivity, provides the certainty that evil people are punished (even if only in the next life), and provides an answer to questions like the meaning of life.

    On the contrary—theism offers much more subjectivity, but not in the sense of arbitrary perspectivism or moral relativism. Theism suggests that subjectivity is the ultimate nature of the universe, and is irreducible. You are right that theism provides the possibility for moral knowledge and offers some coherence to our moral instincts. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a justification for so much of the moralizing that religion propagates, but absent some ultimate reality, I don’t know how one grounds right and wrong, and it seems to me that it needs to be grounded. I don’t see how an accidental universe provides a coherent morality.

    That appeal is precisely why I’m wary of the idea. I’m too biased towards believing that it’s true; I’m not entirely sure I trust my own judgment in the matter.

    Perhaps the bias isn’t wishful thinking at all, but the simple notion that the truth is more appealing to a prepared mind than a falsehood would be. I would offer that you aren’t just trusting your judgment, but that others have judged the idea of God to be the more coherent approach to what is.

    (I really don’t understand what he means about beauty of the natural world. I haven’t believed in God since I was 12 years old– 16 years ago– and the beauty of this marvelous universe brings me to tears on occasion. Yet again, I don’t see how this is related to God.)

    A universe without God, I think, is necessarily a tragic one, where ultimately all beauty, truth, meaning, heroism—pick the virtue—are lost. They are experienced for a moment by evolved minds, but gone in a flash. God’s reality means that those realities are preserved, somehow, and that our sense of them resides in a larger reality. Otherwise, I think the universe is ultimately absurd and finally irrational. Science requires an assumption of rationality for which it cannot account. The intuition of God, on the other hand, I think, makes the rationality of science intelligible.

    • Emergent properties, like the kind of mind we have, seem to be built in to the universe, and a theistic universe accounts for that better, at least for the moment, than an atheistic one.

      I don’t see how.

      You can see how it is connected to God, but not necessarily, right?

      I shouldn’t have included the word “necessarily” there. Beauty seems like such a subjective appraisal that I have trouble understanding why anyone believes that beauty can be used to make any sort of objective statement about reality.

      It would seem that beauty is connected to reality as such, that the beauty of a formula is in fact a recommendation for its veracity, that truth and beauty are connected.

      I’m sometimes initially drawn to ideas because of how beautiful they seem. But beauty is absolutely irrelevant compared to the question of whether that idea matches experimental evidence. Beauty is a good reason to hold a hypothesis, but in my opinion its scientific utility doesn’t extend much further.

      I’m not fully versed in the math, but it seems to me that math is still constrained by logic.

      I’ll go one step further and say that math literally is logic, albeit expressed in a language with more symbols.

      That math itself, is real, not invented. I don’t know that simply saying that math is vast and physics is small by comparison explains the descriptive ability of math. Perhaps there are realities that math describes of which we still are not aware, but that is speculative. The reality of math is the larger point, I think, and again, its ability to be understood by a subject.

      I mostly agree with you here, except to say that I’m not sure why math’s descriptive abilities requires an explanation at all. I agree that math is real; theorems are discovered rather than invented.

      If the ultimate question is “why is there something rather than nothing” then a multiverse doesn’t solve the problem. The two responses are, and this isn’t my idea but it is sound: 1. You can’t ask that question, the universe just is. 2. There is an explanation for the whole thing—meaning, purpose, math, beauty, physics.

      I’m only qualified at the moment to choose option 3: “I don’t know enough to declare the question ‘unaskable’ but I haven’t yet identified an explanation, let alone identified an explanation that a theist would recognize as God.”

      Goes to Polkinghorne’s point—the God question is the question. A universe or multiverse, is experienced through its constituent pieces, each of which is contingent. The sum of all we perceive, universe or multiverse, is a contingent reality. Our desire, need, penchant, call it what you will, to explain is either a cruel joke, or pointing toward a necessary reality, God, that can ground the contingent reality we experience.

      1. I tend to agree with The Famous Brett Watson when he wonders if the Necessary-contingent disctinction is really as universal or fundamental as most philosophers seem to think.

      2. Even if a Necessary Being is needed to ground reality, it’s not clear to me that such a Being would have to be conscious, let alone omnibenevolent. Pantheism seems perfectly consistent with the notion of a Necessary Being.

      A simple formulation of the question points out that the atheist, at the end of the day, must conclude that the fact of the universe, or multiverse, is an unintelligible fact, having no explanation. The theist at least offers a necessary reality as explanation. The common response is that there is no difference between saying “the universe just is” than “God just is” but I disagree. The universe is observable, and its parts are discovered to be contingent, caused, dependent. God (you understand I’m using that word in its broadest sense) is what is meant by that reality which is not those things, and whose reality renders the rest of it intelligible—as I believe many of your considerations below make clear.

      I’m considering this possibility, but only in the pantheistic sense that “God” is defined as “mathematics.”

      I think theism is certainly a more appealing explanation for moral rules. It involves (much!) less subjectivity, provides the certainty that evil people are punished (even if only in the next life), and provides an answer to questions like the meaning of life.

      On the contrary—theism offers much more subjectivity, but not in the sense of arbitrary perspectivism or moral relativism. Theism suggests that subjectivity is the ultimate nature of the universe, and is irreducible.

      I completely agree with you regarding theism’s “metaphysical subjectivity.”

      You are right that theism provides the possibility for moral knowledge and offers some coherence to our moral instincts. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a justification for so much of the moralizing that religion propagates, but absent some ultimate reality, I don’t know how one grounds right and wrong, and it seems to me that it needs to be grounded. I don’t see how an accidental universe provides a coherent morality.

      Theistic morality has always confused me; I don’t agree that it provides a superior basis for morality. I agree that it’s certainly more appealing to creatures like us who crave certainty, but I’m writing a lengthy article on this subject right now so I’ll leave that subject for another day.

      That appeal is precisely why I’m wary of the idea. I’m too biased towards believing that it’s true; I’m not entirely sure I trust my own judgment in the matter.

      Perhaps the bias isn’t wishful thinking at all, but the simple notion that the truth is more appealing to a prepared mind than a falsehood would be. I would offer that you aren’t just trusting your judgment, but that others have judged the idea of God to be the more coherent approach to what is.

      1. I often call myself an “intellectual parasite” because I steal ideas from more intelligent thinkers and use them to build my worldview. But I screen those ideas based on the evidence supporting them rather than the popularity of the ideas or the strength of the conviction behind them. I’d never accept an idea solely because other people consider it to be coherent. (I know you weren’t saying this, I just want to be clear.)

      2. I’m not fundamentally opposed to using intuition to solve mysteries. Choosing hypotheses to test is notoriously subjective, so “gut instinct” serves well in that capacity. But intuition is only the first step towards knowledge; that intuited hypothesis still needs to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

      3. Rigorous scrutiny is much easier for me to apply to someone else’s idea than my own. I’ve a tendency to overlook flaws in my own ideas because I want my ideas to be true. Similarly, I think there are many irrelevant reasons why I want to believe in God:

        1. In the United States, many people distrust non-theists. My lack of belief disconnects me from society and dramatically reduces the pool of compatible long term mates. For purely social reasons, I’d be much smarter to just stop questioning and go to church.

        2. I want quick answers to questions such as the meaning of life, where the universe came from and how a moral life is defined. Agonizing over those questions isn’t pleasant; I’m thinking especially of the recurring, unavoidable ethics questions. I’d much rather just grab a holy book and believe the answers contained inside it. (I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I think many people do.)

        3. I desperately want death to be something more than an end– and to see my departed loved ones when I cross that threshold.

        4. I want to believe that evil people are punished– in this life or the next.

        5. I’m often in situations beyond my control, and I could probably cope with that feeling of helplessness better if I knew that saying a quick prayer would fix things.

        6. I’d also really like to know that my life amounts to more than an irrelevant footnote in an oppressively vast, uncaring universe…

      A universe without God, I think, is necessarily a tragic one, where ultimately all beauty, truth, meaning, heroism—pick the virtue—are lost. They are experienced for a moment by evolved minds, but gone in a flash. God’s reality means that those realities are preserved, somehow, and that our sense of them resides in a larger reality.

      I agree! Theism is much more appealing. I’ll note, however, that I’m interested in discovering the true nature of the universe, however unappealing that true nature may be. Uncomfortable truths are still truths.

      Otherwise, I think the universe is ultimately absurd and finally irrational. Science requires an assumption of rationality for which it cannot account. The intuition of God, on the other hand, I think, makes the rationality of science intelligible.

      I don’t consider theism’s metaphysical subjectivity (which you pointed out earlier) to be a solution to the “problem” of science’s successes. Actually, it seems like it introduces a fundamental inconsistency.

      I’m not saying that science can’t be performed in a theistic universe; we can probably agree that God (if He exists) isn’t capricious, which is why observations of nature appear to reveal objective laws. But the entire point of theism is that this objectivity is an illusion– that God can break any of these laws at His leisure.

      In my mind, the assumption of a purely objective reality is a simpler one which accounts for all the evidence I’ve seen. On the other hand, Occam’s razor is only a guide to truth, not an absolute law.

      • Tom posted on 2008-12-07 at 14:22

        I don’t consider theism’s metaphysical subjectivity (which you pointed out earlier) to be a solution to the “problem” of science’s successes. Actually, it seems like it introduces a fundamental inconsistency.

        I don’t see how one can talk about understanding in an objective universe. In an objective universe, there are only objects, so there is no one to understand. So, it is a subjective universe that makes science possible.

        I’m not saying that science can’t be performed in a theistic universe; we can probably agree that God (if He exists) isn’t capricious, which is why observations of nature appear to reveal objective laws. But the entire point of theism is that this objectivity is an illusion– that God can break any of these laws at His leisure.

        I disagree–it is not the entire point, or even one (in any theism I have been exposed to) that God will break his laws–it is tantamount to saying that God would not be God. Theism suggests that the natural world is revelatory as such, and the Catholic perspective is that truth is truth–scientists are reading the mind of God as expressed in the realities of the material universe. Science does, then raise serious questions about the nature of God–what sort of God would use the mechanisms of evolution to create?

        In my mind, the assumption of a purely objective reality is a simpler one which accounts for all the evidence I’ve seen. On the other hand, Occam’s razor is only a guide to truth, not an absolute law.

        Interestingly, I don’t think the assumption of pure objectivity accounts for much of what I observe at all–a universe that doesn’t explain itself, subjective reality and consciousness, meaning, purpose, love, beauty, truth–these are not objects, but relationships. They are realities, that I believe cannot be explained materially. I guess I should ask–do you see theism as competing with a material reductionism for explaining what we observe? Most of what I write assumes that.

      • I don’t see how one can talk about understanding in an objective universe. In an objective universe, there are only objects, so there is no one to understand. So, it is a subjective universe that makes science possible.

        When I assume the existence of objective reality, that means the objects I can see and touch aren’t figments of my imagination. Objects don’t disappear when I turn my head away from them.

        More abstractly, an object can only be said to exist by giving it an identity, which requires defining its properties. The union of these properties for all objects (and their inter-relationships) are called the “laws of physics,” but it’s important to note that we don’t yet know the real laws of physics. All we have at the moment are crude approximations.

        I recognize two variants of this assumption. Either you assume that reality is completely objective, or you assume that it usually seems like the laws of physics are immutable, but allow for the possibility that God can break those laws if He wishes to perform miracles.

        It’s also possible to deny this assumption altogether, to assert that there are no fundamental laws of physics. In my opinion the successes of our approximate laws of physics suggest that reality does obey a set of immutable laws, even if we’re having trouble deducing them.

        So I think we’re talking about different things, unless you’re referring to the problem of free will. If that’s the case, I’d have to plead ignorance. Not only do I not fully understand the problem, I also don’t see how God’s existence resolves it. (If anything, omniscience seems to complicate matters.)

        I disagree–it is not the entire point, or even one (in any theism I have been exposed to) that God will break his laws–it is tantamount to saying that God would not be God.

        I’d always assumed that true omnipotence could be distinguished (at least in principle) from arbitrarily advanced technology because a truly omnipotent God could break the laws of physics. On the other hand, humans in the future may have “godlike” powers due to technology, but they wouldn’t be omnipotent because their tools still wouldn’t be able to break the fundamental laws of physics.

        Theism suggests that the natural world is revelatory as such, and the Catholic perspective is that truth is truth–scientists are reading the mind of God as expressed in the realities of the material universe.

        Compared to most other religions, I admire the modern Catholic approach to science and rationality. Catholics reject fideism and accept evolution, which I applaud.

        Science does, then raise serious questions about the nature of God–what sort of God would use the mechanisms of evolution to create?

        A subtle God, less concerned with leaving blatant messages for His creations than the deity of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps a subtle God really does exist, and maybe He even cares how moral my decisions are. That’d be nice.

        But I’m much more skeptical of the claim that such a God would look down on me for failing to believe in Him. I’ve always liked this quote:

        “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” — Thomas Jefferson

        I guess I should ask–do you see theism as competing with a material reductionism for explaining what we observe? Most of what I write assumes that.

        Yes, but in two distinct ways:

        1. Science absolutely requires methodological reductionism (I call it ‘naturalism’ in that article; please let me know if I’m using the wrong term). This form of reductionism doesn’t make a deep metaphysical claim, it simply asserts that successful models are best developed by restricting one’s attention to naturalistic explanations.

          The theism held by a young-earth creationist isn’t compatible with this assertion. More sophisticated forms of theism only conflict with this type of reductionism to the extent that they produce cultural biases against functional, useful forms of reductionism. Also, even religions that explicitly disavow fideism tend to engender a culture of faith, which is anathema to science’s culture of doubt. (Neither of these objections is universally applicable or inherent to theism as an abstract concept.)

        2. Ontological reductionism (which I call ‘metaphysical naturalism’) goes one step further and asserts that reality is fundamentally composed of a minimum number of basic substances that act according to immutable laws. In other words, this is the deep metaphysical claim that I’ve been referring to as the assumption of a strictly objective reality.

          I think this form of reductionism fundamentally conflicts with theism, but I don’t fully endorse it because it seems like an extraordinary claim. While I haven’t seen evidence contradicting ontological reductionism, I’m hesitant to make such a sweeping statement about the nature of reality based on the meager experience I have at the moment. I recognize that it’s an assumption on the same level as the assumption that reality obeys immutable laws most of the time, except when God performs miracles.

  7. j-dilla posted on 2008-12-08 at 15:03

    Hey Scientist, I think you have a great post here. questions about God often confuse me… I was also raised Catholic, I attended Catholic Schools, and I still go to mass, whenever I can. The two assumptions in your proof work, but they fall a little short. I’m referring to the possibility of God existing as a being in a higher dimension. I have a very limited understanding of higher dimensions, but a lecture by one of my professors once explained it pretty clearly to me. This video was pretty helpful to me.

    So now, what if God is being that exists in the tenth dimension? The laws of physics would not apply to him and neither would any sort of restriction on omnipotence. I found a little bit of comfort in this explanation because it brings God out of the realm of Faith and Tradition.

    I wish I had time to read all the comments, but I’m a little bit rushed, hopefully I will be back to partake in the discussion which, at a glance, looks intelligent and insightful.

    • Thanks for the feedback and the link.

      I’m a little confused, though. I’ve always had trouble seeing how the idea that God exists in a higher dimension is any different than the idea that He has ultimate control over reality. This ultimate control necessarily reduces the laws of physics to mere guidelines– rules that apply most of the time except when He wants to perform a miracle.

      I can only see one way in which the idea that “God exists in a higher dimension” is different than my idea that “omnipotence requires breaking the laws of physics and therefore invalidates the concept of a strictly objective reality.” Namely, if God has to obey a different set of rules in His own objective reality. That scenario implies that all our experiments would be revealing a purely local form of the laws of physics, which could be altered from “outside” by God. The crucial difference is that He wouldn’t be able to perform actions which would violate the laws of physics in His own reality.

      This idea seems similar to “The Matrix,” except God Almighty is controlling the simulation which constitutes the universe. Note that this form of omnipotence is crucially different than my conception of omnipotence. I say this because in my view omnipotence means that God’s will defines reality at all levels, including anything outside of our immediate universe.

      The notion of God existing in a “higher dimension” where He has to obey those “higher laws of physics” is basically like saying that God is a higher dimensional programmer running a big simulation of the universe. Most of the time this concept seems identical to the notion of complete omnipotence, but I’ve got a question:

      In principle, could we break out of the simulation and infiltrate God’s universe? If so, once we’re on an equal level with Him, could He be hurt or even killed?

      I’m not actually suggesting we undertake this monumentally arrogant strategy, of course. I just think that if your answer is “no,” then you don’t really think God exists in a higher dimension. You think He’s literally omnipotent in the sense that there are no laws of physics which can possibly restrain or hinder Him. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

      If you say “yes,” I wonder if you’re thinking about a being that most people would call God. I say this because I’d call that kind of being an alien with amazingly advanced technology. I think there’s a difference.

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