The God Who May Be, part 1

Western society is polarized on the question of God’s existence. Believers insist, God is. Atheists insist, God is not.

Theists and atheists are equally dogmatic; neither camp concedes that they might be wrong. This is peculiar:  the bare fact that the other camp exists is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that you may be wrong.

Is there a viable third alternative to consider?

There is agnosticism, of course. Agnostics maintain that it is impossible to say whether God exists.

(Agnosticism does not say, merely, “I don’t know whether God exists.” True agnosticism is more robust than that: it says, “It is not possible to know whether God exists.”)

I confess, I am not far from agnosticism myself. I have spent approximately twenty-five years wrestling with the question of God’s existence, without arriving at a final answer one way or the other. In my view, we are confronted with competing narratives, either of which may be true.

If we assume that God exists, we can make sense of the cosmos as we experience it, and of human existence within the cosmos. Likewise, if we assume that God does not exist, it is possible to interpret the data in a way that is consistent with that assumption.

The data do not compel us to one conclusion or the other, contrary to the dogmatic assertions of theists and atheists alike.

Therefore I agree with the agnostics:  it is impossible to prove, and equally impossible to disprove God’s existence. Certainty strikes me as indefensible — and yet everyone around me seems to possess it.

They know that God exists. Or they know that God doesn’t exist. Whatever.

So I am close to agnosticism:  but is it really a viable alternative? I want to repudiate it just as emphatically as the next guy.

Agnosticism holds all the attraction of an empty box on Christmas morning. A worldview ought to have the power to explain life’s pivotal events; it ought to provide meaning, inspiration, and guidance for daily living.

Agnosticism inserts question marks precisely where the human psyche cries out for exclamation points.

And yet … I have just encountered a fleshed-out variation on agnosticism that seems rich in possibilities. At least, I suppose the author’s view must be categorized as a kind of agnosticism, though I presume he would describe himself as a Christian.

CBC Radio One, on the program Ideas, just aired a series of three interviews with philosopher Richard Kearney. They discussed several of Kearney’s books, but the primary focus was on The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion.

Kearney rejects both atheism and theism. He asserts, “God neither is nor is not but may be.” He speaks of “the God who is May-Be”.

What does this mean? How can it be rich in possibilities?

[more to come …]

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30 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jamie
    Jan 01, 2007 @ 15:07:33

    I am not far from agnosticism either, though I’m moving more and more squarely back into the solidly theist camp.

    You say that certainty strikes you as indefensible; I agree. All my life, this has been my huge hangup: I see no way to get at certainty, period. But then I read a book last week that totally upset my epistemological “apple cart” by claiming that certainty is not the legitimate goal of knowledge, and that the whole Western approach to knowledge developed in the modern period is bankrupt precisely because it denies us the possibility of ever truly knowing. I found the book persuasive, so now I’m wondering if the quest for certainty isn’t completely misguided.

    Anyway…

    The major problem with agnosticism for me is that I can’t exactly live life based on non-belief. Practically speaking, I have to live life either as a theist or as an atheist. Even if I claim not to know for certain which is true, my actions (the practical aspects of my life) are going to reflect some sort of belief, whether atheistic or theistic. Agnosticism, then, doesn’t really solve the problem of having to make a practical choice about how I’m going to live my life.

    Maybe Kearney provides you with a solution to that dilemma, though; I’ll be interested to hear your further thoughts.

    Reply

  2. juggling mother
    Jan 01, 2007 @ 15:27:27

    “it is impossible to prove, and equally impossible to disprove God’s existence”

    wee-eellll, it is certainly possible to prove his existance. A public manifestation should do the trick pretty well. A few would be spot on, provided they were accomapnied by some undeniable miracles. OK, it’s not likely that the protestant God would do this, and given the historical evidence, rather unlikely that any Gods do so (although Gods of Polytheistic religions seemed to manifest regularly & to many people!). Even the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins has said, on record, that he would accept any documented and empirical evidence of a God, should such a thing suddenly appear. I certainly would – you’d be pretty damn stupid not to really!

    Equally, whereas it’s generally considered impossible to disprove the existance of anything, we can disprove/debunk all the evidence that they do exist – therefore making the assumption that they don’t fairly certain. This has happened with many mythical creatures such as Unicorns, Bigfoot, fairies etc, where any evidence of their existing has been proven false, and the lack of any actual evidence is acceptd by most of the world as equalling proving their non-existance.

    Reply

  3. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 01, 2007 @ 17:25:13

    Theists and atheists are equally dogmatic; neither camp concedes that they might be wrong.
    Actually, most people will admit they can be mistaken – they just don’t think they are. A person’s beliefs largely depend on which arguments are accepted or reject, consciously or unconsciously.

    I am an atheist not because I am certain there is no god, but because I am convinced that the god of theism does not exist. Furthermore, when I reflect on the reasons why I used to believe in god, they no longer compel me to believe.

    Some truths seem certain – such as “a square is a 4-sided plane figure,” or “a bachelor is an unmarried male of marriageable age.” We could be mistaken, yes, but if we are wrong about these sort of fundamental statements, which seem true by virtue of the meanings of the words involved, then there is no point trying to get knowledge of anything. I don’t believe in square circles because the two characterizations in combination are mutually contradictory.

    Most theists want to characterize god in some fashion, by saying that he is all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, or something like that. If we look at the characteristics god is supposed to have, and if they are mutually logically contradictory, then chances are he doesn’t exist, any more than a square circle does. At the very least, we may have to revise our thinking about how we characterize god.

    If I think hard enough about it, and if I spend enough effort, I could argue plausibly that square circles are real – but why should I do that?

    I agree with Juggling Mother that there should be some sort of empirical evidence that stands up to rational scrutiny – but I am firmly convinced that there has never been a violation of a law of nature.

    I agree with Jamie that it is hard to organize one’s life around a non-belief. That’s why my focus is on my family, my friends, my environment, my career, and on making the world a better place for my children and future generations.

    Reply

  4. juggling mother
    Jan 02, 2007 @ 03:44:53

    Jamie said “I can’t live life based on non-belief”

    But you do! I am reasonably certain that you do not believe in all sorts of things: Fairies, unicorns, dragons, Zeus, Santa, Thor, Bigfoot…….. the list of things you do not believe in is incredably long. Agnostics also do not believe in a single all powerful diety, and most athiests do not believe there is any guiding force at all (as I often say, atheism is as varied as theism!). Our non-belief has as much control over how we live our lives as yours does – in that it does not have much of an impact on anything!

    How often on the average day to you think about Posiedon’s role in your life? That’s how often I think about God’s. My life is not based around a non-belief. It is based around the things I do believe in: community, cultural identity, family, humanity, leading a happy & productive life, and helping others to do the same.

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Jan 02, 2007 @ 07:17:14

    • Jamie:
    I agree that we ought to choose between a life of belief and a life of unbelief. Our inability to attain certainty does not absolve us of the grave responsibility of choosing how we ought to live.

    This is why, in a recent post, I supplied “allegiance” as a definition of faith. Ultimately we choose a side and defend it to the best of our ability without knowing for certain that we are right. Like you, I continue to choose theism over atheism.

    Theists and atheists alike must be careful to give their allegiance to a position that is at least reasonable: i.e., defensible in light of such knowledge as we have about the cosmos. Moreover, theists and atheists alike must be tolerant and respectful of other points of view, knowing that they may, in fact, be right.

    • Juggling Mother:
    A public manifestation should do the trick pretty well.

    Two thousand years ago, God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. We have first-hand testimony to the event from the apostle Paul. Via Paul’s letters, we have what amounts to second-hand testimony from those associated with Paul.

    The apostles’ conviction about what they saw was sufficient to radically change the direction of their lives. Paul went from persecuting the Church to propogating the Gospel. Peter went from cowardice (disowning Jesus) to become a pillar of the Church. James went from unbelief to belief.

    Paul also refers to 500 people who saw the risen Lord on a single occasion. Either they were drinking Koolaid spiked with psychotropic drugs, or this is precisely the sort of public manifestation you say would “do the trick pretty well”.

    Does such an event constitute undeniable proof of God’s existence? I suspect not, but you tell me.

    • Michael:
    Some truths seem certain – such as “a square is a 4-sided plane figure,” or “a bachelor is an unmarried male of marriageable age.”

    Is that the sort of issue we’re dealing with here? Can we expect to attain the same kind and degree of certainty re God’s existence as we have about elements of geometry?

    If we look at the characteristics god is supposed to have, and if they are mutually logically contradictory, then chances are he doesn’t exist, any more than a square circle does.

    I agree with this, as far as it goes. But (with respect) it doesn’t go very far.

    Theists and atheists alike frequently make the same mistake. They debunk the other guy’s point of view and think that they have thereby made the case for their own. But this is a purely negative argument. Both the theist and the atheist must go beyond mounting a critique, to mount a positive case for their own worldview.

    I believe there are three points at which atheists have yet to mount anything like an adequate case. The three points are conveniently summarized in a book I came across recently:

    “First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?” (Owen Flanagan, The Science of the Mind, chapter 8.)

    Darwin was a pivotal figure precisely because he mounted a positive account of the origins of life. For the first time, the appearance of design in the cosmos could plausibly be accounted for without invoking a Designer.

    But the theory of evolution begins at a point (1) after something already exists and (2) after life has emerged (spontaneously, it is assumed). And (3), evolution’s account of consciousness is also arguably inadequate.

    There I go, mounting an attack (of sorts) on atheism. But I don’t assume I have thereby proven theism. In the end, I think we are both forced to make assumptions about these three fundamental matters, and attempt to build a worldview that is consistent with those assumptions.

    This is the oft-stated argument of theists that the atheistic worldview also ultimately boils down to faith.

    Reply

  6. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 02, 2007 @ 11:30:03

    Theists and atheists alike must be careful to give their allegiance to a position that is at least reasonable: i.e., defensible in light of such knowledge as we have about the cosmos. Moreover, theists and atheists alike must be tolerant and respectful of other points of view, knowing that they may, in fact, be right.

    I couldn’t agree more, and I respect those who weigh the issues carefully, sincerely, and with intellectual integrity, and who still choose theism.

    Can we expect to attain the same kind and degree of certainty re God’s existence as we have about elements of geometry? … I agree with this, as far as it goes. But (with respect) it doesn’t go very far.

    This thread seems to be about beliefs and how we should treat people with beliefs that are different from our own. Please don’t think that my comment was meant to be a full-fledged argument against the existence of God. Some comments were made about epistemology and our inability to be certain about anything. I was pointing out that we can have knowledge about things without having certainty, and that some characteristics that God is said to have are amenable to analysis. (I should add that, for such an argument to be effective, we might also have to draw conclusions about whether said characteristics are consistent with what we observe about the world that god is said to have created.) I wouldn’t think of undertaking such an analysis here, and I am aware that even if I did, it need not be accepted.

    “First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?”

    Questions 2 and 3 are the subjects of a great deal of research by biologists, philosophers of mind, and cognititve scientists. As for the first question, theologians have made no more progress than have philosophers. (For the most interesting story, maybe we should look to the cosmologists!)

    The God Who May Be sounds like a provocative read!

    Reply

  7. addofio
    Jan 03, 2007 @ 02:51:40

    With regard to your first question–”Why is there something rather than nothing?”–I have to confess I don’t understand why this is thought to be a profound question. I run across it periodically–always unanswered, mind you–and maybe I’m just stupid, but I don’t get why it’s an important question, given that there pretty undeniably IS something. I tend to think “Why not?” Maybe someone can enlighten me.

    Wit regard to your third question–“How is it possible that living things are conscious?”–we aren’t there yet, but the closest I’ve seen anyone come to approaching an answer to that one from an evolutionary perspective is “A Mind So Rare” by Merlin Donald. You might want to check it out.

    Reply

  8. juggling mother
    Jan 03, 2007 @ 05:49:34

    I was thinking more along the lines of a public manifestation to the public, not a few select men. You know, where the omnipotent God appears to everyone in the world at the same time and says “hey guys, 99% of you have got it all wrong, you should be following X religion if you want eternal delight”

    I know he has a tendancy to appear in isolated spots to various individuals, many of whom are hardly credible so to “prove” he exists, he will either have to do something pretty obvious, or we will have to demonstrate his existance through empirical experimentation.

    I just find it hard to believe in a God who is so spectacularly bad at getting his creations to walk the road he wants them to! Especially when there are perfectly logical explanations for most things, and much of the religious explantions are downright ridiculous.

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  9. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 03, 2007 @ 23:24:28

    addofio said: With regard to your first question–”Why is there something rather than nothing?”–I have to confess I don’t understand why this is thought to be a profound question.

    From a practical standpoint, it’s not profound at all. It’s just that there seems to be no compelling reason or necessity for anything’s existing at all. It’s just one of those brute facts (the biggest one!) that seems to cry out for an explanation. In mathematics, logic, the physical sciences – there’s no explanation to be found.

    It seems to be a valid metaphysical question, possibly with a knowable answer; but I think invoking god as the answer begs the question. Existence is just pushed back one step to god instead of the universe.

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  10. Stephen
    Jan 04, 2007 @ 12:13:09

    • Addofio:
    The question is, how did anything come into existence? Michael argues that introducing God into the equation just pushes the problem back a step.

    I disagree. I think it is safe to say that matter cannot generate itself out of nothingness. If matter is not eternal — I don’t think it is — and it couldn’t have called itself into existence, then where did it come from?

    God, on the other hand, is traditionally conceived of as eternal. Because God and matter have different properties, invoking a Creator doesn’t just push the question back a step: it proposes an answer to the question.

    • JM:
    I appreciate that many people sympathize with the question you pose. I’m thinking about devoting a separate post to it.

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  11. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 04, 2007 @ 15:45:26

    Stephen said: The question is, how did anything come into existence?

    This is certainly one interpretation of the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” but it is not the only one. It could be that something has always existed, and the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” is still valid as an exploration of metaphysics and the nature of the universe and matter.

    I think it is safe to say that matter cannot generate itself out of nothingness.

    I never said it did. What I said was that it doesn’t exist out of mathematical or logical necessity.

    If matter is not eternal — I don’t think it is — and it couldn’t have called itself into existence, then where did it come from?

    My understanding is far from complete, but I think that physicists would disagree. Matter and energy are seemingly interchangeable and indestructible.

    Because God and matter have different properties, invoking a Creator doesn’t just push the question back a step: it proposes an answer to the question.

    Yes, if God exists, then he could have created matter. But if God was the first cause of our universe, then he must have existed before our universe did, and so the question of existence is pushed back one step.

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  12. Stephen
    Jan 04, 2007 @ 18:11:36

    Michael:
    It could be that something has always existed.

    Yes, which I acknowledged as one possible answer to what otherwise appears to be a conundrum.

    Matter and energy are seemingly interchangeable and indestructible.

    Yes, but indestructible doesn’t necessarily imply that matter/energy never had a beginning.

    Moreover, the second law of thermodynamics introduces another significant hurdle, the problem of entropy. If matter/energy is eternal, then the cosmos would have wound down to a state of entropy long, long ago. In that case, something (Someone?) would have had to wind the universe back up again.

    I don’t believe energy can overcome entropy by itself, any more than I believe matter can call itself into existence.

    If God was the first cause of our universe, then … the question of existence is pushed back one step.

    I understand your point. God is prior to the cosmos in my view, therfore we’ve backed up a step.

    But it seems that you have overlooked the point I wanted to emphasize: that God has different properties than matter.

    I’m aware that Christians tend to have only a vague conception of what God is (what properties God is characterized by). And I admit, my own thinking is regrettably superficial in this area.

    But I conceive of God as energy: albeit, energy with personality or intelligence. And presumably it’s here that our opinions begin to diverge. You think energy/matter is eternal, and personality/intelligence is not required to make sense of existence.

    Ultimately, that explanation fails to satisfy me. At some point, I think volition has to enter the equation: for example, the will to reverse the downward spiral into entropy.

    But we’re at the outer limits of my ideas here. Things are still rather inchoate in my mind. I appreciate you forcing me to examine these questions, my brother.

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  13. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 04, 2007 @ 19:52:10

    Always a pleasure, Stephen! I’m touched by the honorific you used. Notwithstanding the fact that I could nitpick about your paraphrase of my position, I think I can say “close enough” at this point.

    Whichever side of the issue we stand on, the universe is an awesome thing, and (if I may come back to the original topic) if either of us were dogmatic in our views, we would not be able to explore it in this fashion. In order to be a seeker of truth, one has to admit that one doesn’t own the complete truth! I may have to post my own thoughts on this soon … at any rate, it could be that we are equally right/wrong, somehow. (Even though I don’t think so. Don’t I possess a great measure of magnanimity? To admit I could be mistaken? And humility, let’s not forget humility!)

    You certainly made my day by calling me “brother.” Peace, bro’.

    Reply

  14. addofio
    Jan 05, 2007 @ 12:19:31

    Michael and Stephen,

    Your discussion of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was interesting, and as usual the meaning of the question is clarified in your answers to the question. The question seems to be about whether there is a creator God or not, and whether or not positing a creator God clarifies anything about the origins of the universe.

    Myself, I tend to be firmly agnostic on the matter. The current scientific theory of the origins of the universe–the Big Bang–certainly begs the question of what set off the bang in the first place, and it’s not clear to me that physicists will ever be able to answer that question. For one thing (and I don’t understand this stuff very well–my own head tends to be strictly Newtonian in physics and Euclidean in spatial understanding, and apparently the universe is neither at the relevant level of analysis)–but anyway, for one thing, the very nature of time seems to change in a way that may make the (to me obvious) questions of “What existed before the Big Bang, and what set it off?” meaningless. Nonetheless, people like me will ask them anyway, and one possible answer is “God”.

    On the other hand, one can spin various stories from a more physical, as opposed to metaphysical, point of view, such as the idea that the universe oscillates–that it will eventuallly stop expanding, begin contracting, and get swept up into one big black hole–which will then blow up again in another Big Bang as the result of some natural process not yet known, and begin the whole thing over again–with possibley a different set of basic physical laws. Eternity being infinite, this could have happened an infinite number of times before, and may continue happening infinitely. Since this is tantamount to saying the sequence of universes is eternal, it would not be necessary to posit an eternal God to explain the origin of the process–there would be no beginning point requiring explanation.

    The fact that both explanations end up appealing to unknowns–a God of unknown nature, or unknown physical processes–that are both also arguably unknowable, kinda leaves it a matter of personal preferance as to what one believes, it seems to me. Which leaves me thinking that one must arrive at one’s own beliefs about God through some other process, or on a different basis, than that of explaining physical reality. Which is about as far as I’ve gotten in my own “seeking” process, mind you.

    Well, I didn’t mean to be so long-winded in my comment. But you seem to be interested in such matters, and relatively few people discuss them as openly as you have, so I appreciate the opportunity. It’s helpful in one’s thinking to discuss things with others–even if you don’t agree, or even arrive at some conclusion yourself, the process does help further your own thinking, and I welcome that.

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  15. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 05, 2007 @ 12:57:50

    Great comment, addofio. If the universe oscillates in some manner as you described (I think it likely that it does, whether or not God exists), then the question of why there is something rather than nothing may still be a valid one in the sense that there could be a sustaining metaphysical cause that is knowable in principle.

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  16. Jamie
    Jan 05, 2007 @ 21:43:07

    JM: I’m a bit late in getting back here, but I wanted to respond to a couple things you said.

    wee-eellll, it is certainly possible to prove his existance. A public manifestation should do the trick pretty well. A few would be spot on, provided they were accomapnied by some undeniable miracles.

    A public manifestation, even if accompanied by “undeniable” miracles, surely doesn’t constitute proof. I mean, the modern philosophers in the Enlightenment period seriously questioned whether we could get outside our own heads to demonstrate that what we perceived with our senses was objectively real. We still don’t have any way of proving that the world we experience empirically actually exists. So even if God appeared publically, would that be proof? It might well be just an illusion.

    Second, I’m having a really hard time imagining what an “undeniable miracle” would look like. If it was merely inexplicable, this wouldn’t constitute proof, because surely scientists could argue that it could be explained with enough time. No one would accept that it was miraculous just because it was inexplicable, any more than scientists accept as miraculous an inexplicable recovery from a patient thought to be beyond hope. So what would be “undeniable”?

    My point is that “proof” is an unreasonable standard to hold. Proof doesn’t exist. The best we can have is confidence–and arguably we have enough evidence for that.

    I am reasonably certain that you do not believe in all sorts of things: Fairies, unicorns, dragons, Zeus, Santa, Thor, Bigfoot…….. the list of things you do not believe in is incredably long.

    You’re right, there are all sorts of things I don’t believe in, and in that sense, it is possible to live as an atheist. But atheism is not really non-belief; it is rather the belief that there is no God. When I said that I can’t live a life based on non-belief, I meant that I can’t live as an agnostic. Practically speaking, I have to live either as if I believe God exists, or as if I believe he doesn’t exist, but I have to pick one–I don’t see any way practically to live a life based on no belief either way (agnosticism).

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  17. juggling mother
    Jan 06, 2007 @ 16:13:58

    “I’m having a really hard time imagining what an “undeniable miracle” would look like”

    Why? I can think of any number of ways He could “prove” his existance satisfactorarly. If I was suddenly God, i would probably go with something like an personal manifestation to each individual on the planet at exactly the same time plus a sudden change in the world for the better – say ensuring all the hungry people in the world have enough food, or just for effect, making a tree grow out of nothing in front of each person!

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  18. Stephen
    Jan 06, 2007 @ 18:19:01

    • JM:
    That would work for a couple of weeks. Then people would start coming up with excuses as to how it didn’t really happen, or it was subject to various interpretations. And the next generation certainly wouldn’t take the word of the generation before it.

    What you want is a God who constantly performs tricks to impress us. If God exists, presumably s/he would rather leave it for us to choose faith or choose unbelief without condescending to perform tricks, nightly, like a dog in a circus.

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  19. juggling mother
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 17:32:53

    Do you really think people are so determined to disbelieve? Why would people come up with excuses? What would be the point? The problem as it stands now is God’s insistance on speaking through individuals – who all say different thing! If religions could all agree on one single thing it might be a good start!

    Oh, and if god is just some indefinite non-matter and not some old bloke with a beard – why are we so badly designed? Most theists claim we were made in God’s image, so obviously his designer didn’t think it through very well!

    And if he just hangs around up in energy heaven and doesn’t take any interest in the world other than to point his finger a few billion years ago & yell “let there be life” then send Jesus down to die a couple of thousend years ago, why should we worship him? He doesn’t seem very deserving really.

    Any God concept just seems to leave so many unanswered questions!

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  20. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 17:18:22

    Are we badly designed? We dominate the planet, don’t we?

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  21. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 20:32:58

    Lots of species are arguably badly designed. One evidence of this is all the extinctions. A better question though, is why god would allow any individuals to be born with defects or terminal diseases. No doubt it is to teach us humans some sort of lesson, like we should be sorry for deformed and ill people.

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  22. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 08:06:45

    A better question though, is why god would allow any individuals to be born with defects or terminal diseases. No doubt it is to teach us humans some sort of lesson, like we should be sorry for deformed and ill people.

    The latter sentence puts words into my mouth, or the mouths of theists in general. Let’s put that pseudo rationalization in the category of ignorant, popular religion. I make no attempt to defend it. But mocking ignorant, popular religion does not disprove God’s existence.

    It goes without saying that I don’t have an adequate explanation for the problem of evil (here lumping birth defects into the general category). But here are a few thoughts, fwiw.

    (Of course, I have not yet argued that God is omnipotent and benevolent, but you rightly assume those properties are part of what I believe about God.)

    Birth defects are relatively unusual, it seems to me, among the total number of births. Many are eliminated via miscarriage during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is often a sorrowful event for the mother but perhaps a merciful outcome on the whole.

    Birth defects are fewer where education and income are better, where prenatal nutrition is good, where mothers-to-be don’t drink during pregnancy, where the socio-political context is stable and protective, where good medical care is available and affordable, etc. But the human race distributes the world’s resources inequitably, countries go to war without justification, etc. Therefore human beings are indirectly responsible for many of the birth defects which do occur, and we ought not to blame God for those.

    The theory of evolution, which I largely agree with (though not as an explanation for human consciousness) suggests that genetic variation is necessary to enable the survival and even the advancement of species. Arguably birth defects are a necessary, if regrettable, outcome of a system that, on the whole, works very well.

    Finally, I don’t share the horror that some people have of all “defects”. Some are horrific, to be sure, judged on the basis of the suffering they bring about. But many (most?) “defects” simply represent variation within the spectrum of human individuality. I particularly regret the Western world’s determination to abort Downs Syndrome babies, who may be born with intellectual impairments but who, in other respects, are delightful people to be around. In other words, some of the “problem” of birth defects comes down to society’s twisted value judgements. I know something about this topic; I spent six years working in a group home for folks with disabilities. (One of those altrustic things that religious people are often motivated to do, btw.)

    The above arguments suggest that you may be exaggerating the significance of the issue you raise.

    It obviously isn’t a complete response to your challenge. But I personally begin with those observations and suspend judgement on the difficulties that remain. I can live with that, and still feel I’m a person of integrity. (Not that you’ve called my integrity into question.)

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  23. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 09:53:56

    Stephen said: mocking ignorant, popular religion does not disprove God’s existence.

    My intent was to make a serious point, succinctly. I could have chosen to write a treatise on the problem of evil, but chose brevity instead. I cut right to the point and you knew exactly what I was talking about. Obviously something’s being mocked does not make it untrue.

    That said, my comment was a little mocking, and I apologize if I gave offense.

    The qestion was, “are we badly designed,” and the answer is that yes, a good case can be made to that effect.

    Birth defects are relatively unusual

    The problem is understanding why they happen at all, if we are supposed to be very well designed.

    … human beings are indirectly responsible

    Doesn’t the responsibility ultimately fall on God? Isn’t that a lot of power to give to human beings, to damage and destroy other people before they are even allowed to start their lives? But more to the point, I don’t think you can rightly blame all or even most birth defects on people.

    Arguably birth defects are a necessary, if regrettable, outcome of a system that, on the whole, works very well.

    But not perfectly.

    I don’t share the horror that some people have of all “defects”. Some are horrific, to be sure, judged on the basis of the suffering they bring about.

    These are the ones I was talking about.

    But many (most?) “defects” simply represent variation within the spectrum of human individuality.

    Those are fine.

    I spent six years working in a group home for folks with disabilities. (One of those altrustic things that religious people are often motivated to do, btw.)

    I take your full meaning here and apart from this sentence I will not offer a response to it – but I would ask you to reflect on it and ask yourself if it’s a fair comment to make.

    The above arguments suggest that you may be exaggerating the significance of the issue you raise.

    The argument has done nothing to diminish the significance of that suffering and horror that occurs all over the globe every day, which is caused not by people but by disease and other natural causes.

    Reply

  24. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 10:14:00

    Umm, yes, we are incredibly badly designed!

    As you know, I teach 1st Aid – it’s amazing how many things cause illness/death just because of the ridiculous design of humans! The oft quoted query as to why we have our waste pipe running through the middle of the pleasure park is just one example (you probably don’t want to think too long on the number of complications that can, and do, arise from that situation), but I can reel of dozens of others without trying. The way we breathe is a good starter – why does air & solid fuel enter at the same place, but then go to differnt places to be processed? especially as if wither go the wrong way, it can easily kill us. And just to be absolutely certain we are likely to choke, we have a voice box taking up half the space in our throats! (thats why animals choke so less frequently than humans btw – smaller larynx). And I don’t believe there is a sexually active female in the world who hasn’t wondered what God had against one way valves:-) We’ve got them on our hearts, why not anywhere else? In fact the whole reproduction process is a bit hit and miss to have been designed imo – why not be more like fish? Ingrowing toenails – what’s THAT all about? Why are our spines not suitable for supporting our bodyweight if we walk upright? Why are our arteries almost at the surface of the skin in five areas, allowing them to be severed with just a mild cut, rather than in the centre of our limbs where they would be protected?

    Reply

  25. Jamie
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 11:46:22

    Michael: I can’t help but add a little note on the problem of evil.

    While I recognize that the problem of evil is a legitimate issue, it wouldn’t be accurate to assume, as most atheists seem to do, that since evil exists, any God that exists must be some sort of sadist. That’s like me assuming that since atheists have no ultimate source of moral dictates, they can’t be “moral” people. It’s simplistic to the point of being wrong.

    Various branches of theism have capable and articulate (if perhaps incomplete) answers to the problem of evil, and it’s probably not entirely fair to criticize theists on that point without understanding how they actually address the issue.

    Reply

  26. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 12:41:53

    Jamie,

    I have not said that god is a sadist. I appreciate your concern, and I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I made no statement regarding anyone’s beliefs.

    The question came about by way of Stephen’s question about design. I am not ruling out the possibility of a theistic solution – but until a workable solution is presented, the question stand as a legitimate one: if God exists, isn’t he responsible for some evil and suffering that we observe in the world?

    It’s an inconsistency that constitutes negative evidence, since God is said to care about suffering. I understand that the evidence is not sufficient to produce 100% certainty – but I’m not sure that the disclaimer amounts to much, since no evidence produces 100% certainty, as Stephen annd others have rightly pointed out.

    Personally, I think the argument is enough to disprove the existence of god, but others need not find it convincing.

    Reply

  27. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 15:40:45

    • Michael:

    Your argument reduces to, “If the world is less than perfect, there is no God.” Obviously the world isn’t perfect. That leaves two possibilities: either there is no God or your expectation of perfection is unreasonable.

    It goes without saying that theists are aware that the world is imperfect and yet we do not see that as a fatal argument against God’s existence. “Depends on what you look at, obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see.”

    Reply

  28. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 21:22:01

    Your argument reduces to, “If the world is less than perfect, there is no God.”

    I already said that not everyone wil accept the argument. Whether or not someone will find it convicing will depend on their state of mind, what/who they believe god is, and what their belief system is, and so on.

    The argument does not reduce to that idiotic statement that you say it does.

    BTW, I read the Intro to _TheGod who May Be_ and it is fascinating.

    Reply

  29. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 06:05:37

    I didn’t mean to put words into your mouth. I wrote, “Arguably birth defects are a necessary, if regrettable, outcome of a system that, on the whole, works very well.”

    You responded, “But not perfectly.”

    I honestly took you to mean that anything less than perfection constituted a compelling reason to deny God’s existence.

    Reply

  30. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 11:21:46

    I see. The point of the argument is not that the world is imperfect generally, but that god, as the concept is often understood, would seem to be responsible for a lot of suffering and evil.

    Reply

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