Questions for the atheists among you

I’m trying to figure out what constructive data I can take away from the seemingly fruitless debate we’ve engaged in on my last couple of posts. My conviction is that dialogue is always constructive, even if no consensus materializes. So here are a few thoughts.

1. Slippery terminology:
If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that we probably should have begun by agreeing on the meaning of some core terminology:

(a) What is “knowledge”?
What degree of confidence/certainty is implied by the word “know”, as in I know God doesn’t exist?

(b) What is “atheism”?
If atheists claim merely that they believe God does not exist, does that make atheism a faith, akin to theism? Are atheists comfortable with that characterization of their truth claim? (I doubt it.)

(c) What is “agnosticism”?
Most of you acknowledge a degree of uncertainty (I still don’t think Simen admits as much). Does “uncertainty” reduce to “we can’t know”, and hence constitute a tacit agnosticism?

(d) What is “theism”?
The question about agnosticism also applies to my own truth claim. Richard Kearney’s lectures on The God Who May Be are causing me to reevaluate the distinction between my sort of theism and agnosticism. I claim, with Kearney, only that God may be, and I acknowledge that ultimately it’s impossible to know. Am I agnostic … or a theist?

Phrased another way, is the assertion, God may be substantially different from the assertion, God may not be? (It seems to me that it is.)

2. I don’t know but I do know:
It seems to me that the atheist position reduces to, “I don’t know; but I do know.”

You don’t know how the cosmos and life came to exist (a kind of agnosticism, at least on this question), but you do know it wasn’t God (i.e., you self-designate as an atheist, not an agnostic).

“I don’t know; but I do know” is not very rational, in my view; not internally consistent. Nor does it accord with the scientific method, wherein hypotheses must be proposed and put to the test. Some things are impossible to put under a microscope and some events cannot be repeated in a laboratory, but at least they can scrutinized from the point of view of logic. “I don’t know; but I do know” fails that test.

I know, you’re going to respond that theism also fails that test. OK, sure, whatever. But, at the very least, that criticism cuts both ways.

3. The Deist god:
I wonder whether my atheist readers deny the possibility that the god of the Deists exists: i.e., a god who created the world and then wandered off someplace and pays us no further mind.

In my more cynical moments, I think the Deist explanation of things may accord with reality better than any other. I wonder whether atheism is sure that even the god of the Deists does not exist; or whether they claim only that such a god would be irrelevant to human existence.

If the latter, does that still constitute “atheism”?

4. The “God of the gaps”:
I responded to Simen‘s current post, and he commented:

I fail to see what your argument is besides the tired old God of the Gaps.

I acknowledge as much; but so what?

Simen thinks he can dismiss the God of the gaps argument just by attaching a modifier to it, “tired old …”. If an argument is old, does that necessarily make it false? On the contrary, when arguments persist over long periods of time (hence “tired old”), it may be because there’s some merit to them.

Catastrophism, for example, is often dismissed as creationist bullshit; and yet it refuses to go away. (“Over the past 25 years … a scientifically based catastrophism has gained wide acceptance with regard to certain events in the distant past.”)

Theism and creationism refuse to go away because science has nothing like an adequate explanation of the origins of the cosmos and of life. If this reduces to a “god of the gaps” argument, that doesn’t trouble me. The gaps we’re discussing here are hardly insignificant, after all!

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35 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. juggling mother
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 09:13:18

    Some good points picked out rom the long comments:-)

    1. I have found in these debates that often confusion arises becuase the terms are understood differently by each person, and even have opposing meanings to each side (The whole “Theory” issue is regularly brought up in any evolution debate for example). However, if you defined every word you wrote, it would make boring reading:-) We usually thrash it out in the comments section OK

    As to whether you are an agnostic or a theists – I would say your association with the Church makes you a theist – although maybe one with some doubts;-) Theses things can not be hinged on single claims!

    2. It’s not “I don’t know, but I know” it’s more of “I don’t know, but based on reason & evidence and personal undertstanding I don’t see any reason to think that it is so”

    3. I guess a deist could still claim atheism if they believed that the creator god had gone & would never be back. Doesn’t theism require some kind of belief in an interested God? One that requires you to live in a certain way or face some consequences? I suppose deism is the same as my hypothetical insectoid space aliens – and as likely imo.

    4. I think the problem with the god of the gaps argument is that every time a gap closes due to new scientific research/understanding, God looks pretty silly, so as an argument, it’s not a particularly sound one to use.

    Reply

  2. Simen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 09:35:30

    Oh, I admit a degree of uncertainty. I just equate my uncertainty of the Christian God with my uncertainty of Zeus and the FSM. Remember, atheism is a lack of belief, it doesn’t have to be disbelief. I disbelieve them in the same way you might disbelieve my claim that there’s a dragon sitting beside me just as I type. There’s simply no evidence.

    It seems to me that the atheist position reduces to, “I don’t know; but I do know.”

    It is more like this: I have searched the world, and nowhere in it can I find any evidence for God. So have many other people, and they haven’t either. Those who claim to find evidence never have anything to back it up. In fact, cases of aliens visiting the earth and ghosts have more going for it than God. Why, then, should I believe in God?

    That isn’t absolute knowledge, but it is the same kind of knowledge we have that the earth is round. Few of us have been in space and actually seen the earth from up there. Photos can be faked, our minds can be fooled. Yet we are all sure that the earth isn’t flat. You can say, “how can you be sure”? Well, we have counterevidence, and we have no evidece of the claim, and so it is a reasonable position.

    The hypothesis “if there is a God, and God intereferes with life on earth, then we ought to see some evidence for it” is reasonable. But always when we look for said evidence we find tales on par with the alien abduction stories. They never seem to be anything reliable. Also, remember that claims of what is thought to be impossible (such as dead rising, and so on) require far more and more reliable evidence than the claim that the earth is round. There’s nothing suggesting that the earth can’t be round. There’s lots of observations suggesting that dead people never rise from death.

    I wonder whether my atheist readers deny the possibility that the god of the Deists exists: i.e., a god who created the world and then wandered off someplace and pays us no further mind.

    In my more cynical moments, I think the Deist explanation of things may accord with reality better than any other. I wonder whether atheism is sure that even the god of the Deists does not exist; or whether they claim only that such a god would be irrelevant to human existence.

    If the latter, does that still constitute “atheism”?

    Such a God is impossible to disprove, at least until we have a reliable model for the birth of the universe. This claim is much weaker. If such is the case, there ought to be no signs of this God’s involvement. It is impossible to prove and impossible to disprove.

    Since I don’t have a belief in this God, I am by definition atheistic towards it. The question becomes: if there is nothing suggesting this God is, and nothing suggesting it isn’t, why bother believing in it? If it turns out to be true, there’s no way I can prove it. If it is false, there’s also no way to prove it, at least not yet. It is utterly irrelevant to my life; whether I believe or disbelieve in such a God, it has no impact on my life and it doesn’t grant me an afterlife.

    In the end, it boils down to this: why believe, if there’s no evidence?

    I responded to Simen’s current post, and he commented:

    I fail to see what your argument is besides the tired old God of the Gaps.

    I acknowledge as much; but so what?

    Simen thinks he can dismiss the God of the gaps argument just by attaching a modifier to it, “tired old …”. If an argument is old, does that necessarily make it false? On the contrary, when arguments persist over long periods of time (hence “tired old”), it may be because there’s some merit to them.

    There’s a reason I called it “tired old”. We close more and more gps in our knowledge, and for every gap that is closed, this argument takes a blow. After all, if lots of our gaps have been closed, and they continue to be, doesn’t that suggest that our current gaps are likely to be filled?

    As gaps in our knowledge have been filled, theists’ claims have been growing weaker and weaker. In the beginning, all natural phenomena were the work of the gods. Then, when we began to get a clue, only the creation of man and some proposed miracles where the work of God. Then, when we found out how humans evolved, the origin of life and the universe are where gods are placed. See a pattern? As our understanding grows, religious claims grow weaker and weaker.

    So, I see the God of the Gaps argument as a cowardly retreat. What we don’t know, we blame on the gods. It is counterintuitive, illogical, and it restrains progress. Nothing gained for great loss.

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 10:57:33

    • Juggling Mother:
    Some good points picked out rom the long comments.

    Just goes to show that I am listening, and considering what people say, even if I keep contradicting their arguments!

    • Simen:
    As gaps in our knowledge have been filled, theists’ claims have been growing weaker and weaker.

    Perhaps, but there has been no growth in science’s knowledge about what came before the big bang. Nor, in my opinion, has there been any real progress on the question of how life first arose.

    All any of you have claimed is that one day science will answer those questions. It’s nothing but blind faith, as near as I can discern. You may choose to be sceptical about God; I choose to be sceptical about science ever delivering on such inflated expectations.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 11:06:24

    btw, I reformatted point one in the post to make it easier to read. (I really must change templates; this one doesn’t handle unordered lists properly.)

    Reply

  5. JewishAtheist
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 11:31:13

    I don’t know God doesn’t exist, but I believe He doesn’t.

    It’s possible to call that belief “faith,” but most people who do so appear to be obfuscating the truth rather than clarifying. Would you consider, “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow” to be a statement of faith?

    I also believe the God of the Deists does not exist, but I am less sure about that belief than about the gods of any religion. That we don’t know what, if anything, caused the Big Bang does not lead me to guess it must be a god. I believe you are wrong about science not making progress on the question of life’s origins. There have been a lot of interesting discoveries on proteins and viruses which are relevant to the discussion.

    The “God of the gaps” argument isn’t a formal argument per se as an argument by analogy. “See, look how many people have been wrong over the millennia, attributing out of ignorance to God what have since been explained by science. How do you know you aren’t doing the same?”

    Reply

  6. addofio
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 12:58:43

    I assume JewishAtheist intended the question to be purely rhetorical, but yes, I do consider “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow” to be a statement of faith. The idea that it would not be suggests to me that somehow “faith” is considered to be a bad thing–purely irrational, or weak, or weak-minded. Whereas I see faith as something we all have whether we know it or not. We all take a great deal on faith, every day, and mostly that works out for us pretty well (as, for instance, the sun keeps coming up–or more properly, the earth stays in orbit and continues to rotate–every day.) I don’t think faith is an all-or-nothing thing, and I don’t think faith has to be irrational nor entirely unsupported by evidence or precedent. Scientists have faith in their methods, and no one–well, almost no one–considers that to be irrational. It might be worth remembering that one of the meanings of faith is trust; it’s not just about believing or disbelieving propositions.

    I have a question for theists and athists alike. Each of you has reasons supporting your own beliefs about God which satisfy you. Do you consider someone who is not convinced by those supporting reasons to be irrational? Let’s assume the “someone” completely understands your arguments, but nonetheless remains unconvinced. And if such a ‘someone” is not being irrational–how do you accommodate that situation in your belief system?

    I hasten to add that as a confirmed agnostic, I don’t think that either theism or atheism is irrational per sé. I think that where the unknowns and uncertainties are so great, it’s perfectly rational to believe anything that doesn’t obviously fly in the face of experiential reality, and that rational lines of argument can be meaningfully developed within many different belief systems. I don’t intend the question to be dichotomizing, or an invitation to insult. I’m just curious about how people thing about such things.

    Reply

  7. brian t
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 13:48:51

    Question 1 starts with some “loaded” questions: it’s rare that you’ll find an atheist saying “I believe/know that God doesn’t exist”, those are “straw man” characterizations of atheists;
    – That’s a negative assertion, and if you make such an assertion, you can expect to be asked to back it up. It’s logically difficult to “prove a negative”, so you won’t really find people saying that without qualification.
    – However, such a negative assertion is not necessary; to be an atheist you don’t need to believe that any particular god does NOT exist. You just DON’T believe that a “God”, or anyone else’s “god”, DOES exist. Not the same thing at all, in logical terms.
    A lot of confusion can be avoided by understanding this point, and not trying to contradict people when they say “they do not believe” – that is the very definition of Atheism.
    I see a lot of this kind of tactic, used by evangelists to build up a false view of Atheism that they can attack. (More “straw men”. ) So, as soon as someone makes an assertion such as “Atheists believe… ” you can just stop listening / reading right away, because that person does not understand the nature of Atheism, or does not want YOU to: it’s a fallacy to ascribe a belief to atheists en masse, or “tarring them with the same brush” as a particular atheist. No single atheist speaks for any other – no, not even Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins – again, theist bullshit tactics try to paint Atheists as “Dawkins’ Disciples”, just because he wrote an informative book last year.

    – What is “God” in the question, anyway? The Judeo-Christian “instantiation”? To phrase it that way, with a capital G, wouldn’t make sense to an atheist: that particular “God Hypothesis” is only ONE of the many such hypotheses that atheists don’t believe in.
    An atheist doesn’t favour any particular god hypothesis over any other, or single any out for ridicule, unless provoked. If you ask “why don’t you believe in God”, expect a question like “which god? Osiris?”

    What do you think of Shinto? Thousands of little gods (“kami”), living in shrines by the roadside, who can be called up by clapping your hands twice. Crazy? Not in Japan – yet they don’t go attacking people like you and I who don’t believe in Shinto. If anything, they use it as a way of respecting nature, and a great excuse for big parties!

    Taking a global view, Atheism is only a problem if you subscribe to a small-minded “my god is better than yours, or none” attitude. If you’re broad-minded enough to think about the world outside your own religion, then it’s not an issue. But if you think you know “The Way”, just remember there are people who have a different “Way”, or None, and who do just fine on “the outside” of your religion. Are you so arrogant as to tell them they’re wrong? (Is your name Pat Robertson, or Ted Haggard?)

    Reply

  8. Simen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 14:59:44

    Brian: it’s standard practice to capitalize the names of fictional characters, e.g. Harry Potter or God.

    Reply

  9. juggling mother
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 15:03:03

    “Do you consider someone who is not convinced by those supporting reasons to be irrational” Not necessarily:-) It depends on how rationally the argue their position.

    Umm, how do you become a “confirmed agnostic”? What, exactly, are you sure about?

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 15:47:25

    Brian T:
    Question 1 starts with some “loaded” questions: it’s rare that you’ll find an atheist saying “I believe/know that God doesn’t exist”.

    The questions aren’t loaded. Each of them arose directly from the dialogue on my recent posts. I believe it was Juggling Mother who used the word “belief”, as in “I don’t believe God exists”.

    What is “God” in the question, anyway? The Judeo-Christian “instantiation”?

    I’ve explained this elsewhere in the comments, but I’ll repeat it here. I was trying to begin from first principles.

    I had Descartes in mind: how he set out to establish that he actually exists and then worked outwards from there. I was trying to do something similar: beginning from the fact that a naturalistic explanation for the cosmos and for life is frankly incredible, and proposing that, instead, we posit the existence of an entity with properties different than the known properties of matter/energy.

    If my atheist commenters aren’t open to that approach, I’m at a loss to know how to proceed. Frankly, I feel this argument is something of a set-up. If I start arguing for an explicitly Christian (or Hindu, or whatever) deity, you’ll just have a bigger target to shoot at. But when I put forward an argument from first principles, I’m accused of not providing enough information.

    In short, damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

    Reply

  11. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 16:05:50

    • John T.
    You might also have a look at Jewish Atheist’s comment, above: I don’t know God doesn’t exist, but I believe He doesn’t.

    • JA:
    The “God of the gaps” argument isn’t a formal argument per se.

    I’m just demonstrating my ignorance, I’m sure, but I don’t think I know what a “formal” argument consists of. However: if I am presented with two alternatives, and I can see that one of the alternatives is an impossibility, it seems logical to choose the other alternative.

    That, to my mind, constitutes a sound analysis. Whether it can be recapitulated as a “formal” argument, I don’t know — but I think it should be possible to do so.

    • Addofio:
    I have a question for theists and athists alike. Each of you has reasons supporting your own beliefs about God which satisfy you. Do you consider someone who is not convinced by those supporting reasons to be irrational?

    Not at all, except in the sense that all of us are irrational to one degree or another.

    I might consider a particular argument to be irrational, and indeed I’ve said as much at a couple of points during this dialogue. But I am confident that every commenter is sincere in their convictions, and struggling (as I am) to be rational in their arguments.

    The fact that others disagree with me, and do so with great conviction, doesn’t trouble me. I think the world is a better place for diversity. I also think truth and wisdom emerge through dialogue; through people setting forth alternative positions and attempting to evaluate the data from the other person’s perspective.

    I intend to post on that dialogical approach soon, as another installment of my series on The God Who May Be. The approach is integral to Richard Kearney’s philosophy.

    Reply

  12. JewishAtheist
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 16:13:43

    Cavechild: Why does the Sun come up?
    Caveman proto-atheist: We don’t know, son.
    Caveman theist: Oomba brings it up every day as a gift to his mistress.

    Today’s child: Why does the Sun come up?
    Atheist/agnostic/skeptic: Actually, the Earth (shows globe) rotates once per day, so it only looks like the sun rises.
    Today’s child: What caused the Big Bang?
    Atheist/agnostic/skeptic: We don’t know, son.
    Theist: God did it for us… covenant… only begotten Son… salvation… blah blah blah.

    Reply

  13. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 16:36:03

    JA:
    Very cute. You should write for the theatre.

    Reply

  14. John
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 18:03:02

    Stephen wrote: I choose to be sceptical about science ever delivering on such inflated expectations.

    Based on what? Seems a poorly founded a mighty convenient skepticism to me. “[C]hoose may be the operative word here.

    Reply

  15. brian t
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 18:34:46

    “I was trying to do something similar: beginning from the fact that a naturalistic explanation for the cosmos and for life is frankly incredible, and proposing that, instead, we posit the existence of an entity with properties different than the known properties of matter/energy.

    If my atheist commenters aren’t open to that approach, I’m at a loss to know how to proceed. ”

    Oh dear… are you hinting that your “atheist commenters” are closed-minded? There’s no need that, is there? There’s nothing wrong with positing ideas, either.

    But if you’re going to ask people to neglect “the known properties of matter/energy” in favour of your particular supernatural hypothesis – again, just one of many, as valid as e.g. the “Jedi” creed from “Star Wars” – it’s going to take more than hypotheses or personal testimony. Especially when such supernatural ideas have very real consequences that affect all people, whether they believe them or not.

    Ideas are great, but Religion is not just an idea once people warp their own lives, and those of others, to fit their theories. If Religion had no negative impact on the real world, there would be no problem, or discussion here, I suppose. Imagine no Religion; or at least Imagine no Catholic Paedophiles, no Osama Bin Laden or George W Bush.

    Reply

  16. Paul Wright
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 20:26:41

    It might be helpful to distinguish between weak and strong atheism. Both go under the label of atheism. It seems you’re thinking that all atheists are strong atheists about all possible gods. That’s certainly not my position. I believe that the God I worshipped as an evangelical Christian does not exist (strong atheism), and I do not believe any other Gods do exist (weak atheism).

    Agnosticism is another word that’s slippery, as Huxley originally mean it to describe someone who believed that the existence of God was impossible to prove or disprove, yet it’s also used to describe someone who doesn’t make such a strong claim, but is merely not sure whether God exists. Weak atheism certainly isn’t agnosticism in the original sense.

    There’s also Paul O’Brien’s point that pragmatically, people who live lives indistinguishable from atheists are functionally atheists (though he does close that chapter telling people not to be lazy about thinking about this stuff). That’s a viewpoint I’d probably have had some sympathy with when I was an evangelical Christian, funnily enough.

    A deist God is a possibility, but in the absence of evidence, I’m comfortable with being weakly atheistic towards it.

    You wrote that: “Theism and creationism refuse to go away because science has nothing like an adequate explanation of the origins of the cosmos and of life.” I doubt that’s why theism refuses to go away! Most theists don’t believe in God because God provides them with an explanation of origins.

    Interestingly, the phrase God of the gaps was originally coined Christian theologians as an example of the kind of reasoning that Christians should avoid. I think a God of the Gaps argument of the form that Wikipedia presents is not inherently a fallacy, since God might have dunnit, but as used by most apologists for a particular religion, it becomes a fallacy when they beg the question of which God did it (the answer usually being the apologist’s own God).

    It seems your project is a bit different from that, in that you want to follow Descartes in seeing what can be deduced about God from creation. Pace St Paul in Romans 1, I don’t think that gets you very far on its own. If God is merely “that bit of creation we don’t understand”, God may be undiscovered physics, or, even if God is somehow outside physics, an impersonal force or principle. That’s a long way from what most people mean by the word, so that using “God” there is not in itself question-begging, but might mislead others into begging, I suppose. But maybe you’ve got more to say on that. I’ll watch the RSS feed with interest 🙂

    Reply

  17. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 00:03:52

    I had Descartes in mind: how he set out to establish that he actually exists and then worked outwards from there. I was trying to do something similar: beginning from the fact that a naturalistic explanation for the cosmos and for life is frankly incredible, and proposing that, instead, we posit the existence of an entity with properties different than the known properties of matter/energy.

    If my atheist commenters aren’t open to that approach, I’m at a loss to know how to proceed.

    I applaud the effort, Stephen. I really enjoyed the dialogue even if you didn’t (you said you felt overwhelmed, like a football team of atheists was going after you, or something like that.)

    I think perhaps you severely underestimated the enormity of the task you undertook, or at least the nature of the reponses you would get.

    It seemed that you moved from a possible generic entity to a possible god. I would be willing to entertain the notion of a generic entity – provisionally – but I would object to calling the entity God, unless and until by building on your first principles you could find some justification for thinking that the possible entity was indeed God. “God” is a term laden with all sorts of meanings, none of which follows self-evidently from the original “entity.”

    But wouldn’t you have to show how physical matter could arise from this metaphysical entity/principle? That would be quite a trick. If you could do it I would be thrilled, and I would salute you and esteem you as one of history’s greatest intellects.

    Reply

  18. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 00:15:51

    As for your questions:

    1) I offer the following definitions, although some readers may disagree somewhat.

    Knowledge is justified true belief, more or less. Philosophers argue about what constitues good justification.

    Atheism varies – weak atheism is the lack of a belief in the theistic god. Strong atheism is the belief that it is possible to know that the God of theism does not exist. (My personal atheistic attitude varies depending on the context and the attributes God is said to have.)

    Agnosticism – someone who is simply undecided may call him/her-self an agnostic (similar to a very weak atheist) – but in the strictest sense an agnostic is someone who believes that we don’t have enough information to know, or that we can’t possibly know, whether god exists.

    Theism is the belief in a transcendant deity who is omniscient/omnipotent/omnibenevolent; there is some variation/contention among theologians and philosophers of religion about what those terms really mean.

    Notice that by these definitions, someone could be a beliver in a religion – Wicca, say – and still be an atheist.

    2) Some things are impossible to put under a microscope and some events cannot be repeated in a laboratory, but at least they can scrutinized from the point of view of logic. “I don’t know; but I do know” fails that test.

    No, because the first phrase refers to the ultimate origins of the cosmos and life, and the second refers to god. Two different things; no logical inconsistency.

    3) The Deist god – I’m atheistic in regards to this god too, but it’s a weaker atheism because the claims of involvement through history are nonexistent.

    4) The “God of the gaps”

    I think that God should be excluded as an explanation in science, by hypothesis – as a purely methodological rule – for the following reason. Science is about finding and exploiting regularities, or natural laws. If we assume that God can and does interfere with the regular workings of nature, then we can never be sure he’s not meddling with our observations and experiments. So, I have no problem with you or anyone believing that God fills those gaps – but insofar as someone is doing scientific research, they should assume that God is not there, because if S/He is, then we (presumably) can’t add to our knowledge by doing so.

    This may seem like “bias” to you. I can only say that, if science is a legitimate way to discover truths, and if God is real, then science may discover God by learning the nature of God. Or, perhaps God can be discovered by means other than the physical sciences. (Not that I think either of those will happen.)

    Reply

  19. David
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 01:29:29

    I’ve only recently admitted openly that I’m effectively an atheist, but I’ve been one at heart since childhood, despite a religious upbringing.

    I don’t *believe* there is no God, there could be, what do i know. But from everything I’ve read and see, there is absolutely no good evidence for it/him/her/they; I see plenty of evidence that a God need not exist to explain Life, The Universe, And Everything. Yes, we/science can’t explain everything, but invoking a God does not help at all. Everything we know, currently and from history, points powerfully to the fact that God, religion, etc. is simply so much wishful thinking.

    Even Richard Dawkins, the modern godfather of atheists, heir to Bertrand Russell, admits, as Russell did, that a God *could* exist – you can’t prove a negative. But the existence of a God seems to be *extremely* unlikely. (As opposed to Penn Jillette – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557)

    That’s my story, I’m sticking to it. For now….

    Reply

  20. Stephen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 10:54:51

    John:
    Seems a poorly founded a mighty convenient skepticism to me.

    Content-free comments of that sort tend to cut both ways. It’s atheists who are conveniently sceptical, from my perspective.

    Science has solved many problems, and we’re all deeply indebted, to be sure. But let’s not make scientists into gods who can plumb all mysteries. Certain topics are outside of the scope of legitimate scientific inquiry. That’s not “convenient”; my scepticism rooted in a proper understanding of science.

    Brian T:
    Are you hinting that your “atheist commenters” are closed-minded? There’s no need that, is there?

    No, I don’t tend to stoop to ad hominem arguments.

    I meant just exactly what I said. I know it’s futile to begin from a fully Christian (or Hindu or whatever) conception of God. If my critics won’t let me proceed from first principles and work outwards from there, I’m at a loss to know how to proceed.

    There’s no personal attack there. You’re taking offense at the word “open”, but it’s accurate: a couple of you have rejected my method.

    If Religion had no negative impact on the real world, there would be no problem, or discussion here, I suppose. Imagine no Religion; or at least Imagine no Catholic Paedophiles, no Osama Bin Laden or George W Bush.

    First, I haven’t set out to defend religion. This is hostile, and gratuitiously so, since it’s irrelevant to the post.

    Second, atheists can be evil too. Human beings are capable of great good and great evil; don’t “imagine” that eliminating religion would usher in some sort of utopia. You’re coming across as a fundamentalist, here: atheism as the salvation of the world.

    Michael:
    I really enjoyed the dialogue.

    I’m glad. You’re my friend, and I always worry, a little, that I risk offending you.

    I think perhaps you severely underestimated the enormity of the task you undertook.

    Maybe. Someone asked me for evidence and I responded, without expecting the intensity of the response. (I had 278 visits in a single day — which is wonderful, but it took me by surprise.)

    I think I had some idea of the enormity of the undertaking. I always thought Descartes was daring to the point of foolhardy! I was under no illusions that I would make a believer out of anybody overnight.

    And, indeed, that wasn’t my goal. All I argued was that God may be. And I am frankly shocked at the intensity of the resistance that was elicited by such a modest claim.

    That resistance isn’t solely due to the enormity of the task I undertook. The depth of the emotional commitment to a particular worldview is also an active factor here.

    I would be willing to entertain the notion of a generic entity – provisionally – but I would object to calling the entity God, unless and until by building on your first principles you could find some justification for thinking that the possible entity was indeed God. “God” is a term laden with all sorts of meanings, none of which follows self-evidently from the original “entity”.

    That’s both reasonable and open-minded of you. (Also well articulated.)

    It goes without saying that I would have to proceed from the “first principle” I proposed to the next step in my argument, whatever that might be. For now, I’m definitely not up to it!

    I take your point that we haven’t yet reached the point of an entity that deserves the label, “God”. I think that observation is one of the most constructive contributions anyone has made to this dialogue.

    But wouldn’t you have to show how physical matter could arise from this metaphysical entity/principle? That would be quite a trick. If you could do it I would be thrilled, and I would salute you and esteem you as one of history’s greatest intellects.

    I wish I were 1/100th that skilled at philosophy! I will dare to say this much: people sometimes claim similar powers for the human mind. “Mind over matter” is a succinct summary of the claim that a metaphysical entity (assuming that mind is at least akin to a metaphysical entity) can cause effects in the material world.

    Just a seed thought; obviously not a developed argument!

    Theism is the belief in a transcendant deity who is omniscient/omnipotent/omnibenevolent.

    That definition is problematic, I think. Polytheists are theists, aren’t they? But they do not believe any deity is omnipotent.

    If that’s how philosophers define “theism”, they assume too much. This is exactly why I think we would have to begin from first principles and take the argument step by step.

    I think that God should be excluded as an explanation in science, by hypothesis – as a purely methodological rule.

    I agree, and for the reasons you have given. I’m sure the 40% of American scientists who believe in G/god would also agree.

    • David:
    Thanks for offering your perspective. I’m sorry you came so late to the debate — it has been quite a stimulating ride.

    Reply

  21. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 11:28:58

    I … worry … that I risk offending you.

    A good friendship can take a litte bit of a beating, as long as it never becomes abusive – which it never has. Usually it’s a matter of simple misunderstanding or an honest difference of opinion. Once the comments are seen in the proper light, they are easily forgiven.

    As usual, I am impressed by the level of repect that all the commenters have shown generally, and which you have shown in particular. I enjoyed reading the ideas from all the different perspectives.

    Reply

  22. Simen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 12:18:13

    Stephen: I wonder exactly what you imagine when you say God may be. “God” is so generic that it can mean almost anything. On the other hand, if you’re to specific, you enter into the realm of things that we can, and have investigated scientifically. If I assume that you mean some conscious entity capable of making choices (i.e. it can choose to create the world, or not), I can agree that it is a possibility, but I don’t see why anyone would believe that.

    That’s also the problem with the deist God. If God never intervenes with life in the universe, what difference does it make? We can never prove it, so it will forever be a formulation hanging in the air. I, too, can formulate some generic being that is responsible for things we don’t know, but it gives me neither further explanatory power nor any new knowledge. In effect, it tells me just what I knew from the beginning, namely that I don’t know.

    I don’t think you can mimick Descartes when trying to establish something about a god or said God’s existence. “I doubt, therefore I think. I think, therefore I am.” That you can doubt is obvious to you. There’s nothing obvious about God. We have no manifestations of God. We all agree that there is a universe, and thus something rather than nothing. But I don’t see how this fact leads you to anything related to God.

    What you basically have said, is “There is something rather than nothing. Some of that something is life. We don’t know how it is that there’s something, and why there is life in that something; therefore, God may be.” That line of reasoning works not only for God but also for other kinds of entities, and so I don’t see why you’d choose to put “God” there instead of “Ghost” or “Unicorn”.

    Reply

  23. Stephen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 13:31:37

    • Simen:
    I don’t think you can mimick Descartes when trying to establish something about a god or said God’s existence.

    I think I/we can. If you had said I can’t use the scientific method to establish God’s existence, I would have agreed with you. But Descartes was a philosopher. Philosophers have their own canons by which hypotheses can be tested. They can and do debate the merits of the God hypothesis.

    Some philosophers have come to the conclusion that God is, or at least may be (e.g. Richard Kearney).

    Descartes utilized data that were available to him on a subjective level. Lots of people make claims about subjective experiences of God. That doesn’t mean all such claims are equally likely; but arguably such subjective data are not totally different than the data Descartes utilized.

    My initial reasoning may work equally well for Unicorns, or for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, since you’re fond of that one. Michael has asserted that the “first principle” I posited is too undefined to warrant the label, “God” and, as we reach the conclusion of this dialogue, his assertion strikes me as valid.

    But every claim is not equally valid. I would hope that rigorous logic would disprove the hypothesis of a Unicorn creator, and of the Flying Spaghetti Monster creator, without likewise disproving the hypothesis of God the Creator.

    But that’s introducing another argument which I haven’t yet attempted to make. Perhaps I will come back to it on another occasion. But first I need time to assimilate the data that emerged through this dialogue.

    Reply

  24. addofio
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 15:27:44

    Wow! A lot has been said while I’ve been away.

    Way back there, someone said. . .hm-m, let me see. . . Ah! There it is. Jugglingmother said, in response to my previous comment

    “Umm, how do you become a “confirmed agnostic”? What, exactly, are you sure about?”

    What I’m sure about is that neither the existence nor the non-existence of a creator entity, hitherto to be referred to in this comment as “God”, can be proven either empirically or logically. By “proven” I mean something like, when any functioning adult looks at and understands the evidence or the argument, s/he will agree that the case has been made.

    Which has some corollaries for me. I think it is perfectly reasonable to believe in God; I think it is perfectly resonable to not believe, or to disbelieve, in God. It is also perfectly reasonable to remain unpersuaded either way. I think each person finds his or her own way in this matter, and for her or his own reasons.

    I further believe (though not as a logical consequence of being agnostic) that it is both interesting and helpful, while attempting to make one’s way, to engage in discussions with other people, whether or not those people agree with one’s own thinking. Or some discussions–those that remain on a respectful footing. Which is why I participate in conversations such as this one.

    Reply

  25. juggling mother
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 15:58:25

    Thanks for the clarfication Addofio.

    I am inclined to disagree, as I believe that one day the God question will be proven – or at least as much as is necessary for the vast majority of humankind to agree:-) Obviously, as i’ve said before, i can envision a number of ways his existance can be proven (Peter F Hamilton has written a particularly good novel about how we reacted as a race (badly) on having life after death proven), but I think his non-existance will only be proven by filling in the gaps and moving forward as a species so that we no longer require him – in the way that we no longer require Dryads to explain how trees grow or Apollo to raise the sun each morning. I think this day is a long way away:-) Partly because most enlightened theists (like Stephen) do not use God to explain the unexplicable, but to define their morality which is a much trickier issue for science to deal with as it is a personal one rather than a physical one.

    (although considering how much “morality” has changed over the millenia, I find this argument particularly pointless)

    However, now i understand where you are coming from:-) I too find these discussions very interesting.

    Reply

  26. Simen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 16:13:16

    Addofio, in my view that position is just as stupid as asserting “there is a God, but I’ve got no evidence.” You say you believe that these questions will never be proven or disproven. That’s an absolute claim with no justification whatsoever. But, of course, you’re entitled to your opinion.

    I do agree that it’s useful to participate in a discussion even if you don’t “win”. Winning discussion is not a useful goal; well, at least not unless the opponents are extremely ignorant. Nobody seems to be completely ignorant around here, though, which is good.

    Reply

  27. Stephen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 16:52:21

    Simen:
    I prefer that commenters avoid terms like “stupid”. Addofio just said that he (she?) appreciates the respectful nature of the dialogue here.

    You may think Addofio’s claim has no justification whatsoever. I disagree. I see no trend towards unanimity on the big questions of life.

    I suspect you think (with Juggling Mother) that everyone will inevitably outgrow God. But even in the West, with its secular orientation, we continue to have atheists and theists. And even in wholly secular environments disagreement persists: academics in a university setting disagree strenuously with one another, for example.

    Life is irreducibly complex. One of my high school teachers had a poster that I still remember (25 years later!): “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution … and it’s wrong”.

    That about says it for me. Complex problems defy simple solutions, and therefore they do not lend themselves to consensus. On the contrary, opinions move in trends: now in one direction, now in another. For every thesis there is an antithesis, etc.

    And I think that’s healthy. Diversity is a resource. Homogeneity leads to vulnerability: think inbreeding.

    Reply

  28. addofio
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 17:29:02

    Skipping past Simen’s use of the word “stupid”, and focussing instead on his asseertion that my agnostic belief has “no justifcation whatsoever”:

    Given the definition of “proof” that I used, I cite as justification the empirical fact that these questions have been debated literally for millenia, with no concensus in sight. This may be insufficient justification to convince Simen–but it hardly qualifies as “no” justification.

    In response to juggling mother: If God’s existence is someday (within my lifetime) proven in some way sufficiently convincing for the majority of the human race, I would hope to be in the majority. That is, I trust my mind is open to the evidence. I should qualify my claim to “no empirical evidence SO FAR exists sufficient to the task of establishing God’s existence for all reasonable adults”. I should also add that I’m skeptic enough that I can’t imagine what the evidence might be that would convince me, though. That is, that would convince me that the case for the existence of God is proven–not “convince me of the existence of God”, a separate question.

    It strikes me that what I’m saying isn’t all that far from the Christian argument that belief in God’s existence is ultimately a matter of faith, not of evidence or logic. Except I’m applying it to all sides of the question. Hm-m. Not sure WHAT I think about that!

    Reply

  29. Stephen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 17:38:57

    Addofio:
    Juggling Mother is coming at the question from the atheist side of the great divide. She expects that everyone will ultimately be convinced that there is no God.

    Reply

  30. Simen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 18:35:29

    Though I may respect you, I certainly feel no obligation to respect your views. They are, after all, only views and as such have no feelings. I don’t shy away from calling what I find stupid stupid. It is most definitely not an attack on the person behind that view. But, as I said, I respect people, not opinions. If any of you felt it was an attack on your person, I apologize.

    But anyway, onto the argument itself. That a question goes unanswered for a long time shows only that it’s a difficult question. It may be answered as we speak, or in a hundred years, or not at all. A number of natural phenomena that have been explained within the last couple of centuries, have been the subject of discussions at least as far back as written records go.

    Reply

  31. addofio
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 00:17:05

    Simen, whether or not you intended disrespect to me, “stupid” is an insulting word. If you don’t intend to insult people, best not to use it. Say you find my line of reasoning completely inadequate and unconvincing–as you clearly do. No problem. Or point out a specific flaw in my reasoning–even better. This is a forum for exploring each others’ ideas, and I have no expectation that my ideas will necessarily be shared or my reasoning convincing to others just because they work for me. But there’s more heat than light in terms like “stupid”, and we are discussing things that many people have very strong feelings about. To bring in words like “stupid” runs the risk of sending the discourse into places I trust none of us wants it to go. I would personally appreciate it if you would not call me OR my views “stupid” in future comments, as I will refrain from using emotionally loaded words to you.

    To recap the discussion a bit–my original claim was

    “neither the existence nor the non-existence of a creator entity, hitherto to be referred to in this comment as “God”, can be proven either empirically or logically. By “proven” I mean something like, when any functioning adult looks at and understands the evidence or the argument, s/he will agree that the case has been made.”

    to which you asserted there was “no justification” for this view. I am possibly splitting hairs here, but when I cited the millenia of discussion with no resolution, I only intended to assert that there is SOME justification for my view, not that there is necessarily sufficient justification to be generally convincing. It is possible that the question of the existence of God will be generally resolved in the future–or that it will simply fade away, for that matter, as the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is no longer a question people care much about. But I certainly don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime.

    Ultimately, each individual for whom the existence of God becomes an important question must decide it for him or herself, based on whatever kinds of evidence or arguments s/he finds convincing. Often the deciding factor is some kind of personal experience, not scientific evidence or philosophical arguments. The point, to me, of discussing the question in a public forum is not to convince others, but to clarify one’s own thinking and to try to understand other people’s thinking. So when I present an argument, I do so only to clarify my position, not to try to persuade people to my view. If someone does find my views convincing–well, I’m happy to have contribnuted to her/his thinking. And if someone doesn’t, and can clearly articulate why–well, chances are I’ve also contributed to that persons thinking. As others are contributing to mine.

    Reply

  32. Stephen
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 07:40:49

    The point, to me, of discussing the question in a public forum is not to convince others, but to clarify one’s own thinking and to try to understand other people’s thinking.

    Well said, Addofio. That you regard my blog as a forum for that kind of dialogue is high praise.

    Like most bloggers, I have no expectations that this site will ever attract enormous volumes of visitors. I write, first, for myself; to set down ideas that I am sorting out. Putting them into words enables me to set inchoate ideas into some degree of order, and achieve a degree of objective, critical detachment from them in the process.

    Even better when commenters interact with me, either critiquing or building on my thoughts. (Usually the former!). This week’s posts have been richly rewarding on that front.

    Reply

  33. brian t
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 10:06:33

    Sure, the original post doesn’t mention religion in general, never mind any specific religion. So? It’s clearly leading to an Intelligent Design argument, and you’ll be lucky to find an atheist on the Web who has not heard of the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Strategy”, or how thoroughly the connection between ID and Creationism was explored in court in 2004 (the Dover School Board case).

    ID tries to create a false expectation that everything has to have a known explanation, and where there isn’t one provided by scientists, or there is a “provisional” one, that’s a gap. Mix in scientists who freely discuss the uncertainties in even well-established theories, who don’t claim certainty when there is none to be had, and you have the potential for exploitation of those gaps by theists, in the service of their particular religion.

    Example: the “Big Bang” is a theory, one subject to slow and erratic refinement. (Last year the age of the universe decreased from over 15 billion years to 13.7 billion years – how could there be such a huge “error”?!).

    Where did the theory come from? Someone’s imagination? An ancient scroll found by a shepherd, or a book dictated in a religious trance? No, it came from observations of the spectra of other stars, observations that anyone can repeat with a little equipment, regardless of nation or creed. The “red shift” visible in all directions led to the theory that the Universe is expanding like a loaf of bread, and if it is, that must mean it was once smaller… very small… even a singularity.

    Huge uncertainties follow: what came “before” the Big Bang? Was there no “before”, and if so, how there be an “after”? How could it explode spontaneously? Did God do it? We don’t know, and so the question becomes, in my view: do you accept this is a gap in our knowledge, and treat it as such, or must you fill it with the results of your particularly human imagination?

    The “god of the gaps” argument may not bother you, but it sure bothers me, as a straightforward example of people avoiding the truth. Sometimes the truth really IS “we don’t know”, and to insert a psuedo-answer such as “God did it” is what gets our collective goat. It goes against the idea of finding truth that stands up independent of people, their opinions and beliefs. What would an alien anthropologist make of human religions and their very real consequences? How real would your religion be if all human beings vanished tomorrow? Think outside the box. 8)

    Reply

  34. Stephen
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 11:16:18

    John T:
    Sure, the original post doesn’t mention religion in general, never mind any specific religion. So? It’s clearly leading to an Intelligent Design argument, and you’ll be lucky to find an atheist on the Web who has not heard of the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Strategy”, or how thoroughly the connection between ID and Creationism was explored in court in 2004 (the Dover School Board case).

    Slow down, you’re about two dozen steps beyond me here. You attacked religion (above). The truth is, my relationship with organized religion has been a very bumpy road. Also, although I self-identify as a Christian, I also think Buddhism possesses a great deal of wisdom. Moreover, I place a high value on diversity, so I’m not interested in making everyone into a Christian.

    As for Intelligent Design — first, I’m not American, I’m Canadian. There is no movement in Canada to establish Intelligent Design in public schools. I have no hidden agenda of the sort you assume.

    I have no opinion on Intelligent Design, pro or con. I have given it only a passing glance, which probably tells you that it isn’t anything like a centerpiece of my thinking. I accept the theory of evolution. But — as I indicated in an earlier post — evolution begins after (a) the cosmos and (b) life already exist. So I am free to believe, in company with 40% of American scientists, in both evolution and G/god.

    The “god of the gaps” argument may not bother you, but it sure bothers me, as a straightforward example of people avoiding the truth.

    Oh yes, you’ve got me there. My whole life is a shining example of a person who steadfastly avoids the truth at all costs. Ouch! that shot really hurts!

    You need to get yourself one of those blow-up clowns they manufacture for four-year-olds and punch it into submission. But please understand, I am not that clown.

    Reply

  35. Stephen
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 14:09:29

    • All:
    I should call attention to Paul Wright’s comment, above. It’s about half way through the thread, but only just appeared there. (imagine Twilight Zone theme here)

    I have set my spam filter to catch any post with more than two links. Paul included three, and I didn’t realize his comment was awaiting moderation until just now.

    Paul addresses my definition questions very adeptly — well worth a read.

    • Paul:
    Interestingly, the phrase God of the gaps was originally coined Christian theologians as an example of the kind of reasoning that Christians should avoid. I think a God of the Gaps argument of the form that Wikipedia presents is not inherently a fallacy, since God might have dunnit, but as used by most apologists for a particular religion, it becomes a fallacy when they beg the question of which God did it (the answer usually being the apologist’s own God).

    Point taken. Michael (aka Snaars) set me straight toward the end of the dialogue. Of course, I made no claim for a specific deity. I think people had a hard time not reading one into my remarks.

    Can I get from my very modest claim to a fleshed-out (so to speak) deity? Probably not via the Cartesian route … but I can always hope for a brilliant insight. More likely, the best I can do is come at the problem again, another day, from a different angle.

    I don’t expect I will ever be able to “prove” God’s existence to the satisfaction of a sceptic. I would only encourage people to keep an open mind on the subject, instead of claiming that God certainly does not exist. But I think all of the commenters admitted to a degree of uncertainty, at least with respect to the ill-defined entity I proposed.

    btw, Paul, you provide an admirable model of respectful dialogue on this topic: without over-inflating your claims, and without bringing your ego into play when someone defends a different point of view.

    Reply

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