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Posts Tagged ‘god’

It’s easy to see how myths about the “man in the moon” got started, isn’t it?  We look up, pareidolia kicks in, and voilà! insta-myth.  But this tendency isn’t really anything surprising, is it?  Everyone has heard the stories about seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or Osama bin Laden in the smoke billowing from the twin towers on September 11, 2001.

In a twist on these fantastic stories, I submit to you the following thesis: arguments for the existence of god are no different than arguments for the existence of the man in the moon.

When we look up at the moon on a clear night we see a pattern of craters and mountains that, from 238,855 miles away, can often appear to take the form of a human face.  Of course, we know that the moon does not really have a “face,” but our mind can sometimes trick us into thinking that it does.  Essentially we are taking something aleatoric and incomprehensible, a blurry topography of mountains and craters on the moon, and substituting, in its place, something we can comprehend, a human face: we’re trying to make sense of the data set with which our senses have provided us.  Efforts of this nature are analogous to the argument that (most) people make for the existence of god.

As arguments for god’s existence go, Aquinas’ “teleological argument” is really the only one that still insists on rearing its shriveled head, and will thus be the focus of my criticism.  The so called “ontological argument” fell apart as soon as Anselm realized that believing in unicorns or trolls didn’t make them real, either.  And the “cosmological argument” is so full of bullshit that even a six-year-old can dismantle it.  So, what is it about the teleological argument that has kept it around for so long?

Well, for one thing, it seems to be our natural, human response to take data sets that we do not, or cannot, understand and make sense of them by re-framing them in comprehensible terms.  (On a side note, one unfortunate side effect of this type of “understanding” is that it often allows suppositions about purpose/intention to creep into one’s thinking.)  This is exactly what Thomas was doing when he formulated the teleological argument for the existence of god, and, as the argument is a reflection of mid-13th century thought, we really can’t blame him for lacking the scientific prowess and insight to know better than to use supernatural explanations  to try to account for natural phenomena.  After all, it is only within the last 150-200 years that advances in science and technology have afforded us the opportunity to begin to understand the natural world in natural terms.  That said, another reason behind the staying power of the teleological argument comes to light: the church has been drilling the argument into its subjects for nearly 750 years, and the scientific community has only been able to respond with counter-evidence in the past 200.  However, this persistence does not make the argument tenable: we don’t throw virgins into volcanoes anymore, either.

For those individuals who base their belief in god on the teleological argument, I will grant the following: it almost makes sense.  Before a certain point in history it is very easy to understand why someone, when observing Nature, would ask, “I wonder who created this?”  After all, we can look at a painting and know who painted it.  If we sit down for a home-cooked meal we know who made the food we are about to enjoy.  “Who?” is one of the default questions we learn to ask when searching for (efficient) cause.  But, perhaps most important to our present discussion, “who” implies personhood (or at least intelligent agency).  Thus, the very nature of the question, “Who created Nature?” implies the existence of a sentient being outside of Nature.  (No being within Nature could have created it.)  There are two criticisms of the teleological argument that spin off from this point.

First, and of particular concern for theists, is the anthropomorphic nature of the question, “Who?”  As stated above, the nature of the question implies personhood, and, in most cases, a very human personhood.  This is a problem for theists because it is not at all straightforwardly clear that, if there were a who that created all of Nature, that such a who would be anything like a human being.  To quote Xenophanes,

“Mortals deem that gods are…as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form…yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as (humans) do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and and oxen like oxen…” (1)

There is a second criticism that spins off from the question, “Who created this?”  And it is that the efficient cause is not always a who.  Consider an oak tree.  We know that oak trees grow from acorns, and that acorns come from oak trees.  So, if one were to walk outside and ask, “Who created this?” about an oak tree, they would have already confused themselves.  The proper question to ask is, “What state of affairs came about to bring this oak tree into existence?”  This question allows for the involvement of a who within the state of affairs leading up to the tree, but does not constrain the set of possible answers.  And we know the answer to the latter question about the oak tree: an acorn was buried and, over time, grew into the tree.  (Some philosophers think that the answer to this question must be pushed back another level.  They would say that another oak tree caused the oak tree in question, because the first tree supplied the acorn.  Others think that causation must be pushed back even further than second-level.  This may be the case, but at some point practical considerations must limit the depth of inquiry.)

Taking one very large step up in scope, let us apply this same question to Nature as a whole.  As I stated above, before a certain point in history it is very easy to understand why someone, when observing Nature, would ask, “I wonder who created this?”  What they were actually asking may have been something akin to my restated question, “What state of affairs came about to bring ____ into existence?” but they had already partially answered this question, perhaps unconsciously, by assuming that the causal mechanism involved a who.  At one time this was an understandable and acceptable, even expected, assumption.  Today it is neither.  Science and mathematics have provided us with the technology and methodology necessary to understand that much of Nature can be understood and accounted for without having to invoke a who as a causal mechanism.  (And I can think of no reason, aside from a nuclear war, to suspect that we will not, one day, be able to account for all of Nature in naturalistic terms.)  This being the case, any serious consideration of the teleological argument for the existence of god has met its end.

That said, I suppose that it is still possible to believe in a creative deity of some sort, but, as I like to say, an individual with such beliefs is doing little more than stapling god onto the back of a system that doesn’t need the extra weight.  (Occam’s razor)

Besides, isn’t the idea that it all just happened more fascinating anyway?

Void damn the distance.

References:

(1) From Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.

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It is a rare thing to hear the truth in church.  It is a rarer thing to see the truth on a church bulletin board.  However, just the other day I happened upon this jewel:

“Eternal life: an offer you can’t refuse.”

Very true, but for different reasons than the church member who arranged the letters on the marquee would like to realize.

Before I explain why, suppose for a moment that “eternal life”, as marketed by several world religions, is a reality: that by believing in their mutation of god and dedicating your life to his/her/its service, you can earn eternal life in a virtual utopia.  If this were actually the case, then it would, sensibly, be very difficult to resist the urge to join that faith so as to guarantee your ticket into such a paradise.  However, back in reality, buying the argument in favor of eternal life is much more difficult.

It seems to me that eternal life is the nail on which the whole of (western) religion hangs its hat.  To demonstrate this, ask yourself the question, “What’s left of religion if you remove eternal life from the equation?”  The answer is that if eternal life disappears, so does everything else.  Dietary guidelines?  Gone.  Behavior restrictions?  Gone.  Moral codes?  Gone.  Why?  Because there is no longer any reason, outside of pure, stubborn, personal commitment, to follow the laws laid down by religion.  What former believers would then discover is that there are and have always been reasons for getting along with others and having a moral code that are better than the reasons supplied by their discarded deities. Can it realistically be argued that the millions of Muslims and Christians in the world would stay true to their respective faiths if they did not think that there was a glorious reward waiting for them at the finish line?  Pausing for a moment to consider human nature, I think not.  Certainly, if eternal life were removed from the dogma of these religions, you would find some individuals who could not bring themselves to abandon their beliefs; perhaps pastors and imams would be saved from apostasy by the fear that they would not know what else to do with their lives.  But, to combine Hume and Occam, which is the easier argument to accept: (1) there is one god who is understood in many different ways and has devised a number of systems with which to test the mettle and commitment of humans to find out who is fit for heaven, (2) there are many gods, all of whom have designed their own gauntlets for humans to run to see who can get into the respective paradises of the respective gods, (3) there is a god(s) but no eternal life, (4) there is no god(s) and eternal life is simply a grandiose fabrication formulated by the founders of world religions to capitalize on humanity’s fear of death and keep the seats filled?  For anyone who picked (1) or (2), think about what you are asserting when you claim that there is a god(s) and that there is eternal life.  I’m going with (4), though I have not here argued against the existence of god (don’t worry, that post is forthcoming).

So, back to our church marquee.  (Which said, in case I’ve been rambling too long and you can’t remember, “Eternal life: an offer you can’t refuse.”)  True, you cannot refuse the offer of eternal life.  But neither can you accept it.  Why?  Because it is not being offered.  Indeed, the only form of an even extended life that I can think of is that which is being enjoyed by Einstein, Ol’ Blue Eyes, and Honest Abe.  And even this must be granted to us by others, not attained by completing a cosmic evaluation.  Perhaps, instead of longing for the eternal life of fairy-tales and mythology, we should strive to leave such an indelible mark, to contribute so much to our world, that we cannot simply be forgotten after our deaths.  That seems to be an afterlife worth pursuing.

Void damn the distance.

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