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

Monday, June 02, 2008

Atheism, aliens and Anglicans

A little while ago, Linda flagged up this newspaper article on the Church of England using 'Doctor Who' in order to spread the good word. Now it seems that the folks at Pharyngula have got hold of the news – and aren't best pleased.

So I thought I'd use this opportunity to write a quick post on an idea that's been floating around my head for a while.

It's impossible to call yourself a real science fiction fan without being aware of Clarke's 3rd Law.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Reading through the comments on the Pharyngula post, specifically some peoples' dislike of 'The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit' episode of Doctor Who (essentially because of its agnostic stance towards the protagonist: Alien or Satan? Who knows?), made me realise that the law could be rephrased/expanded as follows:

“Any sufficiently advanced alien would be indistinguishable from a god.”

Science fiction, in all forms, is replete with such ideas: Egyptian/Roman/Greek gods as alien beings is pretty much cliché.

I'm not suggesting that believing what's commonly referred to as God is an advanced alien is more rational*, but I'd certainly argue that such a belief is as rational as believing god(s) to be divine beings.

(*Although I suspect some would.)

It's entirely possible to conceive of a being or beings sufficiently advanced enough to explain the so-called miraculous events of all religions in perfectly naturalistic, though alien terms: Angels, revelation, resurrection, prophecy... maybe even the creation of the universe itself.

Just a thought.

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Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Agreed, Matt. Also it pains me that people didn't like those episodes, apparently because of the *ambiguity*. What do they want? A public service warning?

Anyway, see my previous comment: aliens would be brilliant, for theism and for everyone. Unless they were trying to invade, that is. But there's always UNIT for that...

2:56 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Some people just want to be difficult.

The Doctor works best as an agnostic - it's why he travels. As he says at the end of 'The Satan Pit': "Day I know everything I might as well stop."

(Or something to that effect).

2:55 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I think believing in aliens is more rational than believing in supernatural entities (or divine beings, as you put it). It seems Ockham's Razor makes it so: A world without supernatural entities is less ontologically committed that one with such entities. I think. This is especially so if "God" (or rather, the Craigian transform God*) is posited as an explanation for, say, the existence of life on Earth. Hoyle's suggestion that "aliens did it" is more parsimonious (and therefore, by my lights, more rational) than "a supernatural agent did it." Obviously (cf. my blog), I think the case is different for the existence of the Universe.

Another thought: I don't think it makes too much difference whether we consider "God" to be an alien or a supernatural entity. If the Alien-God is like the Supernatural-God is every possible way, except that the Alien-God did not create everything out of nothing (and other such minor details), why should we care?

4:50 AM

Blogger Linda said...

You guys say that because your idea of God is a 'being', an entity. Of course the idea of aliens would make more sense.

I should know better than to jump into a discussion here (I always get a brain cramp), but allow me to get a little crazy here. ;-)

Consider a God who is nothing. No shape. No form. No personality. Then consider a God who is everything, such as light, air, life itself. Perhaps God is everything and nothing all at the same time (?)... Maybe that's what God looks like without all the religious teachings that illustrate something that is less believable than aliens.

I dunno. Just a thought, as flaky as it may sound...

10:36 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

The question is: Would a human brain be capable of distinguishing between such a being and a 2001-esque being?


4:59 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

If God is nothing = God is not some thing.


If God is everything entails that God is something.

Then, it follows that:

If God is everything, then God is not nothing.

Therefore, believing that God is nothing AND God is everything is a contradiction.

But watch the ifs.

1:56 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...


Does your question entail a denial of the ability to ascertain whether a being has divine attributes or just approximately divine attributes?

I mean, there are necessary and sufficient conditions to call an entity God. I think. Some people just want to say, "Whatever made the Universe-with-a-big-U is God", others want to say "An entity is God insofar as it is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent", and other still want to say that "An entity is God insofar as it is is a trinity of persons in perichoretic relationship.

So, we might be impressed by some very powerful alien, but once we apply our criteria of divinity, we should be able to conclude whether a being is God.

2:02 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

once we apply our criteria of divinity, we should be able to conclude whether a being is God.

Only if we have a way of adequately testing whether or not they meet those criteria.

How would you differentiate between incredibly knowledgeable and all knowing?

I think there would come a point where a being would be so powerful that we'd be unable to establish exactly where the limits of its power lay.

5:27 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Therefore, believing that God is nothing AND God is everything is a contradiction.

I think this takes us back to the discussion of whether an infinitely (as opposed to maximally) powerful God would have to obey logic.


I've always taken statements like that to be the speaker's way of expressing the sheer alienness, sheer incomprehensibility of the thing they call God.

Beyond logic. Beyond language.

5:46 AM

Blogger Linda said...

Beyond logic. Beyond language.

Exactly. How can we define something that is beyond our comprehension? The God that I believe in is somewhere out there with yet to be discovered knowledge, science, and the universe… maybe even beyond that.

If we’re looking for God within what we already know, he will never be found. All we will find is the human concept of God, which is so utterly lacking.

Therefore, believing that God is nothing AND God is everything is a contradiction.

One example of everything and nothing at the same time is this: (my attempt at logic, which may not fly...) :-)

You see these words in front of you right now in this moment. There’s absolutely nothing of me that physically appears in front of you in any real sense. Yet I put all of me (complete focus) into this one brief moment of writing these words. When you read these words, you receive the everything of me therein. So you are getting nothing and everything at the same time.

9:40 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

If talk of God defies logic, then talk of God is nonsense by definition. Then, we should stop talking about God.

7:10 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

"So you are getting nothing and everything at the same time."

I don't see how I'm getting nothing.

7:13 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

"I think there would come a point where a being would be so powerful that we'd be unable to establish exactly where the limits of its power lay."

This leads me back to saying that, at this point, if we find a being so close to being omnipotent, omniscience, and omnibenevolent...if we find a being so close to fulfilling all our desiderata for God, then I'd worship this being. Why not?

7:15 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Is there such a thing as "Negative Theology" - defining God by establishing what He's not?

7:19 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Damnit - I knew the term "Negative Theology" was too cool for me to have made it up myself...


7:21 AM

Blogger Linda said...

"Negative Theology" - defining God by establishing what He's not

Ooooooh! I like that! Now, that's my kind of theology.

Speaking of which, one thing that God is not (in my view): He's not a "being" as he keeps being referred to - not in the sense that he is something that lives... something identifiable.

As a matter of fact, I might even venture far enough out of the box as to say that God does not "exist." Ha! What do you think about that? I suppose we would have to define the word exist.

I don't see how I'm getting nothing.

If a person stood in a room an hour ago but is no longer there, then there's nothing of that person that remains in the room. That's the nothing you get.

5:07 PM

Blogger Linda said...

if we find a being so close to fulfilling all our desiderata for God, then I'd worship this being. Why not?

I just noticed this. I think this statement pretty much explains the whole sickness called religion (my definition), otherwise known as idol worship (in the book). We look to worship a phantom idea of God created in our own heads.

I guess we would also have to define the word worship.

Gosh... I'm really having trouble with definitions of words on this thread. hmmmm... :-)

8:10 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Heh, welcome to the world of philosophy Linda! I was just reading the other day how philosophy is largely concerned with meanings and justifications. (I know this seems rather obvious, but, I'd never explicitly pinned it down quite like that before.)

Questions like, "what do we mean by 'worship?'", or "how do you know that God is not a being?" (thus also requiring what we mean by the word "being" to be defined as well) are both highly philosophical questions.

Is it any wonder that modern philosophy has placed such a high emphasis on language?

8:18 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

"We look to worship a phantom idea of God created in our own heads."

What's the alternative?

If the question is "Does God exists?" or (better) "Is belief in God rational?", we have to specify the conditions. What do we mean by "God"? What do we mean by "exists"? What makes a belief rational?

The relevant question at hand is, "What do we mean by God?" Most reflective theists (cf. Swinburne, 1979) take "God" to refer to a "non-physical, personal being, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent..." And then they proceed to ascertain whether such an entity exists.

What's the alternative? Referring to the Bible? Sure, we can do that, come up with a biblical definition of God, and ascertain whether THAT God exists. You'll find, however, if you read the Bible that there is NO single definition of God. This is why reflective theists came up with abstracted definitions, which they want to argue is just the "biblical God" made coherent.

5:52 PM

Anonymous Reinier said...

God must be either everything or nothing, it's just how you define God.

From a logical and scientific perspective nothing can be created 'out of a sudden'. Not even God.. :) So either God always existed and must be exactly everything or God must be nothing at all.

This interesting diagram which was created from a logical perspective could explain more what I stated above... http://imgur.com/2Enpr

6:22 AM


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