"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quick Question

To anyone who believes in the validity of any of the ontological, cosmological or design arguments for a deity: If such a being wanted us to believe in its existence, why would it only provide evidence that a) can only be properly understood by a small segment of the population, and b) generally only leads to endless debate?

(I realise this might sound a bit glib, but I've been chewing the question over myself for a while now and I'm yet to come up with a decent answer).

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26 Comments:

Blogger Linda said...

In my opinion, God is not a "being," something, someone outside of ourselves that sits above and rules over the universe. Calling God a "he" (or "she" for some people) brings God down to our human level. The concept is beyond what we can put into a box and make sense of. The Bible itself can only describe God as "I Am."

God is unimaginable and unexplainable with our finite minds. Only when we can let go of the desire to "get" God or downsize God to fit into our brains in neat little packages, can we even begin to explore the infinite abyss of who/what God really is.

Christians claim that all of the truth is contained within a book that they wave in front of people's faces. I also value that book, and the words contained therein speak to my heart. But I, in no way, believe that's all God is. I believe the truth is sprinkled throught the whole of the universe, and it awaits us to explore, seek, and grasp bits of it at a time.

Humans are funny animals, thinking we can be greater than we are. We think and debate to make ourselves right and the others wrong, and we think that makes us bigger, taller, and closer to the truth. But I believe you can get closer to the truth by seeing the right and the wrong in ourselves and then sharing that knowledge with each other.

That's my two cents. You're welcome to roll your eyes at me. ;-)

9:19 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

A couple thoughts.

First off, if being able to intelligently interact with each one of these arguments was a prerequisite for knowing God most humanity would be up a crick. But I don't think such a level of rhetoric, or comprehension is at all necessary. It seems to me that talk of ontological/cosmological arguments can be placed into a larger category; that of the created world. And it is here that I think God makes the first of his three-fold revelation.

Allow me to clarify. We have two basic methods of revelation. One of which has two categories in it's own right. The first category is general revelation. The second, is special revelation. Special revelation has to do with unique acts of God within history. Within general revelation you have two main factors to deal with. 1. There is the nature of the created world. 2. There is the nature of man. It is this second category of general revelation that we seem to run a lot of circles around here. When we deal with this area we are exploring the tension between the universe as we know it and our own experience. It is here that each man feels a tension. Few may be able to articulate it, but on different levels we all feel it. And it is here by means of our quest for consistency that I believe we are being driven towards something.

This is the first step. All creation around us and within us drive us onward in a search for meaning and purpose. Such desires are nonsense if there is no God.

11:02 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

You're welcome to roll your eyes at me.

No eye-rolling at all. A very interesting comment.

11:11 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Such desires are nonsense if there is no God.

Why?

The quest for an ultimate "meaning" is, I agree, a futile one. But the search for meaning in our own lives is far from so.

11:13 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"The quest for an ultimate "meaning" is, I agree, a futile one."

You may be satisfied with the answer you have come to on this, however I find it unacceptable. I cannot envision a blind determined system that somehow crafts little meaningful pockets within itself only to exterminate them as quickly as they arrived.

1:47 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt M,

It is interesting that you mention this. Pascal, who did not think that matters of religious truth could be decided by natural reason, thought our common ignorance put us all on a level playing field. Because no human being has special access to the divine in virtue of their special intellectual talents, faith becomes universally available.

While contemporary philosophers have revived the project of natural philosophy, the project of demonstrating key religious truths, such as the existence of God, through natural reason, I remain unconvinced that we can prove that God exists, and is compassionate and merciful, etc. Perhaps their project of producing powerful arguments for theism can succeed; I simply don't know.

So, I am not sure what someone who "believes in" the project of natural theology would say to your query. You might try looking into what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the relationship between faith and reason. Aquinas held that through his famous "five arguments" one could demonstrate the existence of God. At the same time, Aquinas did not think it was possible to deduce the most important truths about God and His providence. Christianity's radical claim that human beings, despite their thorough corruption and moral depravity, can be reconciled to their morally perfect Creator is an article of Faith.

As you may know, Aquinas believed that some virtues could not be attained through consistent practice by human beings. Instead, these "theological" virtues are infused by God into the individual who freely wills for God's grace. The chief theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Love. One can become courageous by facing their fears and consistently performing courageous actions. However, according to Aquinas, one cannot similarly become faithful merely by facing their doubts and performing faithful actions. Only through a special act of revelation and grace on the part of God can an individual acquire Faith.

Perhaps the answer to your question is this: the chief import of theism to human life is this latter set of truths, rather than abstract, philosophical propositions about God as the "first cause" of nature, or God as entity with a rather peculiar ontology. While natural theology can supplement our faith, support our spiritual lives, and be apologetically deployed, we remain, in the last analysis, all equal in ignorance about our relationship to the divine (except insofar as we are willing to receive the grace to believe).

I remember Camus joking that no one has ever died for the ontological argument. But, saints have met terrible deaths for a God who loves us so dearly that He suffers with us, and faced a humiliating and painful death so that we might know Him. This, Aquinas might say, is because the great saints are filled with the Holy Spirit, who sustains their conviction in the greatest events of human history. The possibility for sainthood is possessed by everyone, as God gives Faith to everyone who sincerely asks for it.

4:05 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Timmo,

You might try looking into what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the relationship between faith and reason.

I intend to read Aquinas at some point. I'm still waiting for the second volume of Anthony Kenny's history of philosophical thought, which deals with Aquinas and the time he was writing in. Once I understand the context better I'll look at his specific writings.

I'm aware of his five proofs though, and none of them really prove too satisfactory from an agnostic point-of-view. I've seen it argued, convincing to me, that what Aquinas is attempting is not so much establishing God's existence as establishing his nature. With none of the proofs does Aquinas say "this establishes God", but only some variation on "this we call God".

Were I theistically inclined, I'd probably regard most of these arguments as "consciousness raising" - getting people to think about the universe they live in. For me, there's nothing in the cosmological argument that leads to belief in a divine being (agnosticism is the only valid position in my opinion), but it at least shakes people out of an unthinking complacency.

I remember Camus joking that no one has ever died for the ontological argument.

Heh. Coincidently, I've only just started reading 'The Myth of Sisyphus'.

While Camus has a point, I'm not sure you can argue that theistic martyrs occupy a unique place in human life. Buddhist monks have been prepared to sacrifice their lives for their non-theistic beliefs. People have been prepared to die for their political beliefs. Nationalism sent millions to their deaths in the 20th Century. In fact, human life is filled by examples of people sacrificing their lives to save the ones they love, by running into a burning building, or taking on armed gunmen, etc. The capacity for sacrifice isn't even limited to humans, as there are numerous stories of dogs, etc. being killed while trying to protect their owners.

God gives Faith to everyone who sincerely asks for it.

I've always thought this was an incredibly clever position for religious believers. You can never prove your sincerity and so there's always a reason why God hasn't revealed Himself. It's like telling someone that they can run through a wall if they really want it strong enough. Every time they smack up against the brickwork you just have to tell them that they need to want it more.

10:43 AM

 
Anonymous Eques said...

Not all Christians believe that all truth about God is contained in the Scriptures. As s Roman Catholic Priest I believe that God is constantly revealing "Himself" to us through faith, thorough the Church, and through Tradition, which are all gifts from God. Reason can know somethings about God analogously,as Thomas Aquinas would point out.But all we can "Know" about God, compared to "love" of God,is only straw.

12:03 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Eques,

Thanks for your comment.

God is constantly revealing "Himself" to us through faith, thorough the Church, and through Tradition

Could you expand on this a little? As I don't quite see what you mean.

1:49 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt M,

While Camus has a point, I'm not sure you can argue that theistic martyrs occupy a unique place in human life.

Don't misunderstand! I am not attributing a unique status to theistic matrys; I am contrasting those truths which Aquinas believes can be discovered by employing our natural reason and those truths which are only "accessible" through faith. I wrote, "Christianity's radical claim that human beings, despite their thorough corruption and moral depravity, can be reconciled to their morally perfect Creator is an article of Faith." This is the chief import of Christian theism to human life, and here everyone is on a level playing field -- it is "available" to the most intellectually gifted as well as the most ordinary person.

Does that help?

5:33 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo,
As Matt and I have gone round and round on the way we would each wish to use the word "faith", do you mind if I ask you to clarify how you are intending the term?

Matt is inclined to use "faith" in an "a leap of" sort of way. In which case, I can see how he'd take issue to the comment you just posted.

12:50 PM

 
Blogger Unpremeditated said...

Hi Matt. Don't know if you've read Theodore M Drange's "Nonbelief and Evil" but it deals in part with exactly these points. The argument from Nonbelief always seems to me to be extremely persuasive.

12:49 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

The quest for an ultimate "meaning" is, I agree, a futile one. But the search for meaning in our own lives is far from so.

I don't know if it is futile, and I know plenty of people certain it isn't. A meaning grounded in our own lives only is too contingent, too malleable, too end-able for me.

Back to your question: is it only a very small number of people who have "intimations of immortality"? How many people, exactly, beyond the followers of organised religion, have a sense, a feeling that there is something more?
Besides, I'm sure a Christian would argue that God has already revealed himself (linda's excellent point notwithstanding), so that your question is answered. Glib answer, obviously.

My real answer: I have no idea how or why faith is given, or indeed if it is given at all, or striven for. I have to work very hard at mine indeed and it certainly does not feel like any kind of gift or donation.

4:34 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Your question makes an important assumption: That God wants us to be evidentialists, i.e., God wants us to believe on the basis of evidence.

Should the Christian theist concede? I think not, given her emphasis on faith (used in the leaping sense. Leaping - going beyond evidence - isn't bad and evil. Incidentally, scientists qua scientists do it as much as religious folk).

However, I recognize the problem. For millennia, Christians have recognized the hidden God. Paul wrote of seeing through a glass darkly, Aquinas and Luther wrote of the Deus Absconditus, Moltmann writes of the counterintuitiveness of revelation on the cross. But why should God be hidden? Why should revelation be counterintuitive?

Maybe cognitively this worry is founded upon mistaken assumptions (e.g., God as evidentialist, God as anthropocentric). But emotionally, existentially, the hidden God is not far from the absent God, who is not far from no God at all.

P.S.: I'm surprised no one has talked about free will yet. The popular argument is that if there was conclusive proof of God's existence, no one would be able to freely love God. You try to choose not to love an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. The problem with this argument is that most people who submit it believe in Satan, who allegedly chose not to love God despite allegedly knowing all about the Big Guy.

3:42 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

You try to choose not to love an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. The problem with this argument is that most people who submit it believe in Satan, who allegedly chose not to love God despite allegedly knowing all about the Big Guy.

I'm not sure I have such a problem with that; free beings choose evil the whole time, don't they? I mean, knowing what goodness is, and how a good life is easier, or less painful, or whatever, they still choose the harder and darker path. So it doesn't seem so odd to me for Satan to have done it, though it doesn't tally well with the traditional idea of angels as not really free in the human sense. Plus he was onto a very good thing as the brightest of the angels, and somewhat ****ed on his chips, as they say in northern parts of England.

1:56 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Unpremeditated,

Haven't heard of Drange before, but will try to check him out.

8:33 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

TD,

A meaning grounded in our own lives only is too contingent, too malleable, too end-able for me.

But is that all this boils down to? Can we live with the idea of an indifferent universe or not?

8:34 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Revvvvvd,

Your question makes an important assumption: That God wants us to be evidentialists, i.e., God wants us to believe on the basis of evidence.

Most of our life revolves around evidentialism (even if we have to make the occasional guess where the evidence isn't forthcoming). It seems strange that a god would go completely against the grain when it comes to something so important.

The popular argument is that if there was conclusive proof of God's existence, no one would be able to freely love God.

Most Christians would say that they know God exists though, that they have direct experience of a divine being. In fact, that seems to be the starting point of most theists.

Also, I find that argument a bit dodgy. Surely such a being could provide evidence of its existence but leave its exact nature a mystery (I know the sea exists, for example, but its depths and reaches are pretty much unknown to me).

Leaving it all up to guesswork introduces an element of randomness that seems to fly in the face of what a god's supposed to be.

8:42 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

But is that all this boils down to? Can we live with the idea of an indifferent universe or not?

The multi-million euro question. Depends on who you are: not for me.

9:34 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt,

Most Christians would say that they know God exists though, that they have direct experience of a divine being. In fact, that seems to be the starting point of most theists.

Allow me to be a voice of dissent! While I am a Christian theist, I hold that human beings do not have certain knowledge of God. Instead, we are at such an epistemic distance from God that making Him our epistemological starting point is inappropriate.

I wholeheartedly agree with Soren Kierkegaard when he proclaims,

Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual's inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast to the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.

I defend the rationality of this sort of faith here.

5:37 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Sorry for my prolonged absence. *waits for joke to sink in* Before I respond, Matt, there are a few good books out there on the topic (none of which I've read). There's a book edited by Paul Moser and Daniel Howard-Snyder that I hear is pretty good. Anyway...

The easy one first: Re the loving-freely argument, I never said I advocated it, only that I was surprised that no one else did. Especially the bit about "You don't believe because you are evil." But then again, I think the current state of affairs is that we DO know God exists, but have no idea what God is like. At least, this is the case if you define God vaguely enough. We know some kind of ultimate reality exists - but it might just be the Universe in toto. But this is semantics, right

Second: The claim that we are evidentialists most of the time is an empirical one, and I think (but what do I know, I'm a social psychologist...hey, wait a minute) it's false. Most people are rationalists, but certainly not evidentialists. And the canons of rationality are usually looser than those of evidence. If we are evidentialists usually, we are not thus consciously.

2:22 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hi Revvvvvvvvd, nice to see you around here again.

But then again, I think the current state of affairs is that we DO know God exists, but have no idea what God is like.

Could you expand on this? Who do you mean by "we"?

If we are evidentialists usually, we are not thus consciously.

Actually, I'd kinda agree with this. I think that most people form rules of thumb based on experience: I assume that the taxi I get into won't explode not because I have direct experience of that Taxi, but because I base my opinion on past experience and what I'm told by others.

When it comes to a divine being, however, you'd have to ask the question of why it doesn't provide direct evidence of itself - as relying on indirect evidence (which some see the cosmological argument, etc. as being) leaves open the possibility of doubt. Which, when eternal souls are apparently at stake, seems quite odd. If belief is important, then the fact that only around 1/3rd of the world's population do so (maybe 2/3rds if we include all theists, regardless of their actual beliefs) is quite puzzling.

4:15 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Speaking of Paul Moser...

I've been slowly working my way through a piece he did which can be found here. (first link at the top)

It's aptly titled "Why isn't God more obvious?"

Might be worth a look.

5:59 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I think I was thinking of the cosmological argument. The atheist may concede that the Universe (big U) requires causal explanation, and that there is an uncaused First Cause, and that we might call it "God" if we wanted to. But the atheist could then go on to say that this "God" is vague and not religiously significant. Graham Oppy does something like this.

What does this mean? I think this means that the question of whether or not "God exists" is problematic from the get go. I think Alex's approach (next post) is more appropriate, asking "What is at the crux of ultimate reality?" We all agree that there is some kind of ultimate reality. Hick would say that this means we all believe in God. But that's uselessly vague. The question we're really interested in is what this "God" is like? Is it just shorthand for "The Universe"? Or is there really some personhood at the bottom?

I have to go to bed now, but I'll leave with a wondering out loud about how you dichotomize evidence into "direct" and "indirect" sorts. Some might say it's obviousand direct that living things are intelligently designed and that 1/3 of the world fails to see this because they're stupid and evil. And surely God can't be blamed for that.

5:26 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The atheist may concede that the Universe (big U) requires causal explanation, and that there is an uncaused First Cause

Leaving aside what we'd call such a cause, I'd take issue with the idea that the Universe requires an explanation - we may want there to be one, and such an explanation may well exist, but it's quite possible that we may never know what it is. Maybe the cause of the Universe lies outside our ability to understand. I'm not suggesting that we give up trying to explain it, but we should really consider that possibility.

I'll leave with a wondering out loud about how you dichotomize evidence into "direct" and "indirect" sorts

Roughly: That which we witness and that which we're told. (It's not a perfect division, but, I'd argue, a useful one).

Some might say it's obvious and direct that living things are intelligently designed

If there's dispute then it's not obvious.

Using the distinction made above, then the only way for ID to be direct knowledge would be for us to witness the act of creation.

6:44 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I'll concede the possibility that such metaphysical matters are ultimately beyond our ken. But then I'm a sceptic in the epistemological sense, and one who takes Popper (and Musgrave) seriously. Science might never hit the jackpot of Truth and Life and Goodness, but it'll do epistemically. Similarly, while I don't allow myself to make strong metaphysical truth claims, I do allow myself to claim that some metaphysical truth claims are rational for me to believe. But that's epistemological groundwork for which we have no space at the moment.

"If there's dispute then it's not obious." Dude, there's dispute about everything. God, free will, the self, the existence of other persons, the existence of other objects. Some are theists, some atheists. Some are realists, others idealists, others sceptics, others solipsists, others a mix of all these. Some are mathematical Platonists, some are Aristotelian essentialists, some are Darwinists. We disagree about EVERYTHING. Not even visual perception and logic can be taken for granted. By your lights, nothing is obvious. And you'd be right. Nothing is obvious. The problem is not God, it's epistemics in general. The very ability to doubt ANYTHING - surely useful - allows us to douvt EVERYTHING, and we do.

3:58 PM

 

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