Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Problem of evil - Rev Sam again

Following on from previous post - we are trying to get to grips with the Rev Sam's contention that the problem of evil is not really such a serious problem for believers.

He's made two suggestions, I think. The first is that "good" when applied to God, means something other than what it means when applied to humans. God is "beyond good and evil", yet God is still something the Rev Sam wishes to worship.

"what's at stake is what is meant or understood by 'God' in that sentence. I'm not persuaded that we can put much flesh on the bones of 'good' when that term is ascribed to God; the God I worship is beyond good and evil, he doesn't fit within those categories. Though I'd still want to call him 'good'..."

Quick comment from me: But, notwithstanding your reluctance to put much flesh on the bones of "good" when applied to God, you do think God worthy of worship, right? But then there's the problem of explaining why a being that would, say, bury thousands of children alive, and cause hundreds of millions of years of unimaginable pain and horror, etc. is worthy of praise and worship. This play with word "good" doesn't make that very basic, and surely very serious, problem go away.

BTW, in any case, the semantic ploy you are adopting here can also be used to defend belief in an evil God (see my God of Eth): you see, Evil God really is maximally evil. True, he creates love, laughter and rainbows, etc. but you must remember that "evil", when applied to him, is used differently. God's "evilness" is compatible with him creating such things.

You would, of course, see straight through this ploy in defence of an evil God, and indeed dismiss it for the cheap sleight-of-hand with words that it is. So why do you take it seriously when it comes to defending the good God hypothesis? Why should we take it seriously?

Your second suggestion is, I think, that, for you, belief in God plays a "foundational role". Perhaps Sam would say with Plantinga that this belief is "properly basic". Possibly, Sam is making a Nelson Pike type move and saying that, if you have a priori grounds for believing in God, or even just faith, then the problem of evil ain't so much of a problem - yes there's the problem of explaining the amount of evil in a manner consistent with God's existence - but having faith means being sure this can be done, even if we cannot see how.

Is this the sort of thing you have in mind Sam? I can see why you might not want to get into details, of course, for as soon as you commit yourself explicitly to a particular claim, you render your position vulnerable to criticism. But I think you should take the plunge - go on, commit yourself to something!

59 comments:

Kyle P. said...

Sam, may I ask a few simple questions? You don't have to answer them all at once. But I use these questions in order to understand a theist's position better.

What is "god" made of? - You may have read about this one on my Scientific American blog, if you were the one commenting on it. You two sound very similar!

If normal words cannot be used to describe your "god", or in other words "good" and "evil" cannot be applied to your "god", then how can you have any understanding of what it means to be a "god" at all? What I mean is that it seems like it might very well be the case that no words at all can be applied to your "god". It seems to me like your definitions are very, very light and need to be more clearly stated. This goes back to Jackie's statements about where "Jesus" and the Bible fit into your beliefs. Since your post lacked those words, it seems like they're not as important to your explanation of "god" as they are for actual Christians. Forgive me if I'm wrong.

Third question, what does it mean for your "god" to be supernatural? I assume it is supernatural, anyway. Again, can any words at all be applied to your "god", and is it even remotely possible that your "god" passes any tests for incoherence?

Fourth, do you think your "god" only exist as a concept, or is there more of a physical reality to your "god" than that? Keep in mind that just because something exists as a concept, we can't go the Platonic route and say it therefore "exists" in the same way we do. That's a play on the word exists, and we can see that by simply imagining something which we know doesn't exist. Imagining it builds the concept for it, while existing in the same way we do is impossible (if we imagine that it is, for example). And, if your "god" only exists as a concept, does that mean that it is merely a figment of your imagination, like Stephen has been suggesting all along?

Stephen,
I wrote a nice comment on a youtube video that was trying to explain a great find of a chariot wheel in the Red sea and blah blah blah. One person said they didn't need fancy science and what not to prove the existence of their "god", because they've experienced Christ personally and so on. I said, "Muslims, Hindus, and Alien Abductees agree with you there! You're not alone!" You gave me the idea for that. Thanks.

anticant said...

Trying to get to grips with the Rev Sam's notions is as futile as trying to grasp a slippery piece of soap in a hot bath. It melts away before you can get a hold on it.

Jackie said...

Sam,

I hadn't realized that you're the Rev Sam of Dr. Law's posts. So of course we're talking about your God. I wouldn't call it "The" Christian God, since each sect of Christianity has a different take on what that god is.

If "suffering and death ... have no ultimate meaning at all," then what meaning can Jesus's sacrifice have? What did he sacrifice? How was it meaningful?

Kyle P. said...

anticant: Now THAT is an analogy that wholly succeeds. I salute you!

Sam Norton said...

Slippery Sam says: I'm quite happy to be pinned down sometimes (eg ordination vows, declaration of assent and so on) - the trouble is that there is a LOT of hinterland that needs to be unpacked and explained before I can say something definite and not be misunderstood. Stephen once expressed concern that I was going to go 'all via negativa' on him - but the trouble is that that IS where I come at these things from - and I'm completely orthodox in doing so (that is, I'm not at all unusual or unique in taking that stance).

The other thing I'd say is that, having once been an atheist, it took me many years of engagement with the issues to start to properly inhabit Christian language from the inside - and, indeed, I'm still learning.

I'm starting to work through some of these in my reasonable atheism series on my blog.

Which is all a bit tangential and autobiographical. I'll come on the specifics in the next comment.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen said:
notwithstanding your reluctance to put much flesh on the bones of "good" when applied to God, you do think God worthy of worship, right?

Sam says:
Absolutely.

Stephen said:
But then there's the problem of explaining why a being that would, say, bury thousands of children alive, and cause hundreds of millions of years of unimaginable pain and horror, etc. is worthy of praise and worship.

Sam says:
God is not a being. God is not 'a' anything - but this is a bit of a semantic quibble. I think the point Hart was making (which I would agree with, if I've understood him correctly) is that any conceivably satisfactory explanation would diminish God and make him less worthy of worship. I suspect the logic of worship works the other way around anyhow - it is good to worship God, _then_ we talk about the 'goodness' of God, or not.

Stephen said:
This play with word "good" doesn't make that very basic, and surely very serious, problem go away.

Sam says:
I think I'd say two things at this point. 1. When I worship God I'm not worshipping one who causes suffering, rather the reverse. 2. The God I worship is revealed through suffering (ie through the cross). There might be a third actually - some suffering caused by God isn't incompatible with his being worshipped.

Stephen said:
BTW, in any case, the semantic ploy you are adopting here can also be used to defend belief in an evil God (see my God of Eth): you see, Evil God really is maximally evil. True, he creates love, laughter and rainbows, etc. but you must remember that "evil", when applied to him, is used differently. God's "evilness" is compatible with him creating such things.

You would, of course, see straight through this ploy in defence of an evil God, and indeed dismiss it for the cheap sleight-of-hand with words that it is. So why do you take it seriously when it comes to defending the good God hypothesis? Why should we take it seriously?

Sam says:
Actually I'm content with that logic. "God's "evilness" is compatible with him creating such things." Indeed.

Stephen said:
Your second suggestion is, I think, that, for you, belief in God plays a "foundational role". Perhaps Sam would say with Plantinga that this belief is "properly basic". Possibly, Sam is making a Nelson Pike type move and saying that, if you have a priori grounds for believing in God, or even just faith, then the problem of evil ain't so much of a problem - yes there's the problem of explaining the amount of evil in a manner consistent with God's existence - but having faith means being sure this can be done, even if we cannot see how.

Is this the sort of thing you have in mind Sam? I can see why you might not want to get into details, of course, for as soon as you commit yourself explicitly to a particular claim, you render your position vulnerable to criticism. But I think you should take the plunge - go on, commit yourself to something!

Sam says:
I haven't read very much Plantinga (and not for about 15 years) and I'm not aware of having read any Pike at all, but I'm sympathetic to the idea that some beliefs are foundational, not in a technically foundationalist sense, but in a 'held fast by everything around them' sense - which in the case of religious belief involves the various forms of life that constitute a living faith.

If I can jump ahead of myself, I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life (ie Christians do things with the words). That would be worth pursuing further....

Sam Norton said...

Kyle - I'll have to catch up with you later, sorry!

Sally_bm said...

Sam, if God is not anything (or, AN anything, as you put it), I don't know how we can discuss him with you. He's like a non-concept. You almost talk about him like he's just a perspective you have. He also seems to change his (non-existent) nature depending on the context in which you're discussing him, which makesme doubt that he's even a unified concept in your mind. Would you disagree?

Stephen Law said...

We now seem to be moving on to another strategy:

"If I can jump ahead of myself, I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life."

You deny "God exists" is used propositionally, to make a claim - it has no content capable of truth or falsehood. You say it's used in another way. OK, how? Expressively, for example? To express optimism, say? Fine, but (i) that's clearly not what most Christians think they are doing when they say "God exists". They think they're not just being optimistic, but making a substantive claim - a claim that's true. Are they just confused?

When you say it took you "many years of engagement with the issues to start properly to inhabit Christian language from the inside", you also seem to be hinting at this sort of neo-Wittgensteinian move: "You can't understand they belief system without actually going native and entering into it - something atheists are necessarily precluded from doing. So they can never understand what they are rejecting, certainly not without many, many years of immersion in religious practice."

And there's also a reference to Wittgenstien's hinge propositions - something must be held firm if communication is even to be possible. You make "God exists" a hinge proposition, perhaps?

As we move through all these vaguely presented moves and allusions, I get the occasional glimpse of something that you might, I guess, try to turn into an argument. But as soon as we try to give more substantive form to one, you've moved on to the next!

Now, I really don't think this is what you intend, Sam, but this certainly could be a deeply intellectually dishonest strategy, that might allow someone with less integrity to endlessly give their critics the run around, perhaps while saying to him or herself - "These unsophisticated pygmies, they just aren't deep enough to fathom the depths of my world view!"

But perhaps you are unintentionally playing a similar game? Has that thought ever crossed your mind?

Jackie said...

Sam said: "1. When I worship God I'm not worshipping one who causes suffering, rather the reverse." What is "the reverse"? Is God worshipping you?

Sam said: "2. The God I worship is revealed through suffering (ie through the cross). There might be a third actually - some suffering caused by God isn't incompatible with his being worshipped." Are you saying (I) that God causes suffering and (II) that that makes God unworthy of worship? If so, you are contradicting yourself.

You agreed with Stephen that God has "evilness." How is it good to worship something with evil aspects? I know you don't like to call your God a "thing," but if it isn't any thing, I can't see how you can claim it exist.

Anonymous said...

Jackie

If you believe the Christian Bible then Jesus didn't sacrifice much at all.

How any days worth of cruxifiction did he get? Well being whipped by Romans and nailed to a cross is pretty ghastly but its not the worst is it? It was a basic run of the mill punishment at the time, and by many standards it was over with pretty quick. (As far as we know he never suffered a days illness in his life before and there are several which would have been nearly as painful that the cross and much longer lasting. )

At the end of the day He still got to go to Heaven.

Anonymous said...

As I read Stephens last response to Sam I began to wonder how an atheist can lapse.

Is it by learning to think in ways which are not critical or rational? As Stephen says "I get the occasional glimpse of something that you might, I guess, try to turn into an argument". By a long habit of glossing over the implications of various theological propositions, possibly starting off with the aim of understanding the theist perspective or "retaining an open mind",
critical faculties are gradually lost.
The beliefs gradually begin to assume a self supporting nature. Any challenge from reason is placed at a safe distance by the vague and self referential nature of ideas within the system.

anticant said...

Sam, like so many earnest Christians trying to make sense out of their incoherent beliefs, is pure Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “ which is to be master – that’s all.”

- LEWIS CARROLL: "Through the Looking-Glass".

anticant said...

The perhaps over-familiar quote I've just posted continues:

'Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

'“Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

'“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”'

In view of the impenetrably opaque nature of Rev. Sam's ramblings, I certainly don't intend to stop here all the rest of my life!

Anonymous said...

Re worship.

Many cultures have worshiped evil gods. Does no harm to be on the right side of any sort of God.

Worship is a strange human thing. A God who is beyond anything, greater than great, gets words to mean different things when they apply to Him etc doesn't need it. wont miss it if it isn't forthcoming, won't be impressed by it (fancy a gold plated cathedral anyone?) and certainly won't be influenced by it. If anything it's a sign of mental infirmity usually exhibited by lovesick teenagers.
A scripture where the burning bush turns round and says "now don't be silly" is much more likely than the versions being offered don't you think?

Jackie said...

anon said: "If you believe the Christian Bible then Jesus didn't sacrifice much at all..." Tell that to Mel Gibson.

anon said: "Many cultures have worshiped evil gods." The difficult part is getting them to admit that the god they are worshiping is evil. Oops - there goes their claim to morality.

Kosh3 said...

Religious non-realism is like the ultimate inside joke: only the intellectual sophisticates are in on it, they don't make known that their views diverge from the rest, and continue on their merry way.

If only there was some preface to the Bible or the Quran that said "warning: contents are not to be interpreted as making truth claims! To be taken only as emotive devices". Alas.

anticant said...

Yes, it's a posh form of mental masturbation.

Anonymous said...

jackie - When I said many cultures have worshiped evil Gods I was thinking mainly of the polytheist variety where there was an official "God of Evil" e.g Set of the Egyptians, the Norse Loki and also any number of rather petulant deities who demanded offerings etc lest they turn nasty. In this case the correct attitude for worship is not so much love and adoration but fear and awe. You still do the prayers, build the statues and give offerings. Just don't expect much forgiveness if you get it. wrong.

Sam Norton said...

First - to return to Kyle P's questions.

Kyle P said:
What is "god" made of? - You may have read about this one on my Scientific American blog, if you were the one commenting on it. You two sound very similar!

Sam says:
God is not 'made of' anything. God is not an item in the universe. God is the precondition for anything existing at all (and not in a 'first cause' sense either).

Kyle P said:
If normal words cannot be used to describe your "god", or in other words "good" and "evil" cannot be applied to your "god", then how can you have any understanding of what it means to be a "god" at all? What I mean is that it seems like it might very well be the case that no words at all can be applied to your "god". It seems to me like your definitions are very, very light and need to be more clearly stated. This goes back to Jackie's statements about where "Jesus" and the Bible fit into your beliefs. Since your post lacked those words, it seems like they're not as important to your explanation of "god" as they are for actual Christians. Forgive me if I'm wrong.

Sam says:
To deal with the last point first Jesus wasn't mentioned in words, but he was fairly explicitly referenced!! I think getting into a discussion about Jesus and the Bible will be a bit of a distraction at this point in time, however interesting it might be. (See here for an indication of what I think.)

Secondly you say 'it might very well be the case that no words at all can be applied to your "god"' - and ultimately that is correct. In other words, one of the foundational disciplines of theology is recognising the provisionality of language as applied to God (which has some knock-on effects for the provisionality of language in general).

Theological language is always analogical. Unlike analogies in more mundane language, these analogies can never be 'cashed' out with a non-analogical explanation - it's analogies all the way down. Yet it is still possible to do things with these words.

Kyle P said:
Third question, what does it mean for your "god" to be supernatural? I assume it is supernatural, anyway. Again, can any words at all be applied to your "god", and is it even remotely possible that your "god" passes any tests for incoherence?

Sam says:
The word 'supernatural' has changed its meaning over time (see here). So there is a sense in which I would be happy to talk about God being supernatural (= non material) and a sense in which I would not be happy to talk about God being supernatural (= 'divine intervention').

Kyle P:
Fourth, do you think your "god" only exist as a concept, or is there more of a physical reality to your "god" than that? Keep in mind that just because something exists as a concept, we can't go the Platonic route and say it therefore "exists" in the same way we do. That's a play on the word exists, and we can see that by simply imagining something which we know doesn't exist. Imagining it builds the concept for it, while existing in the same way we do is impossible (if we imagine that it is, for example). And, if your "god" only exists as a concept, does that mean that it is merely a figment of your imagination, like Stephen has been suggesting all along?


Sam says:
God is more real than anything else I know. Including my own opinions!

By the way - whilst I don't want to say that God is only a 'figment of my imagination' I think that one of the besetting conceits of a primarily materialist worldview is a systematic underappreciation of the imagination. If your room is anything like mine, take a look around it, and try and find things that weren't first conceived in the imagination. Imagination in both material and linguistic terms is the origin of everything we know.

Anonymous said...

Sam --

You said "Theological language is always analogical". So when you say "God is good" do you mean "God behaves as if He were good, and within certain bounds is a reasonable substitute for something good"?
All very well but it doesn't seem to stack up with the language of other theologians. The ancients seemed quite happy to make the analogous nature of what they were saying explicit when they were using a model. Parables are pretty obviously just that. The Bible makes copious use of phrases such as "the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field;" They had no problem separating out use of analogy. Why the difficulty with modern theologians?

You also mentioned reality. In what sense can things be more real than others? Do you mean in a probabilistic sense or as having a sort of realness property which possibly runs from 0 to 100%?

Sam Norton said...

Sally b_m said:
Sam, if God is not anything (or, AN anything, as you put it), I don't know how we can discuss him with you. He's like a non-concept. You almost talk about him like he's just a perspective you have. He also seems to change his (non-existent) nature depending on the context in which you're discussing him, which makes me doubt that he's even a unified concept in your mind. Would you disagree?

Sam says:
I'm comfortable with the idea that God is not a unified concept in my mind, principally because God is someone I relate to. Do you have a "unified concept" of each of the important people in your life? Lacking that concept doesn't invalidate the relationship - it would be a bit bizarre if it did, people would consider you autistic or something similar (not a casual analogy). The thing is, God is not a concept for me. There are things which I understand and believe about God, which can be yoked together in more or less coherent sense, but that there is some level of irreducible mystery about him - of course, and hallelujah. There is a similar sort of mystery about other people too.

Stephen said:
We now seem to be moving on to another strategy:

"If I can jump ahead of myself, I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life."

Sam says:
Actually I don't think I am pursuing another strategy - I think you're the one jumping on at a rapid pace. That remark was to point towards some of the background behind some of my previous comments, with the aim of further illuminating them (ie where I come from with regard to them) - I'm very happy to plod through these things more slowly.

Stephen said:
You deny "God exists" is used propositionally, to make a claim - it has no content capable of truth or falsehood. You say it's used in another way. OK, how?

Sam says:
I would deny that the statement 'God exists' is expressing a claim about a matter of fact in the world. I think that it is describing something about the nature of the world taken as a whole, ie that the world is meaningful and that meaning can be understood personally.

Stephen said:
Expressively, for example? To express optimism, say? Fine, but (i) that's clearly not what most Christians think they are doing when they say "God exists". They think they're not just being optimistic, but making a substantive claim - a claim that's true. Are they just confused?

Sam says:
I don't think that all religious language is simply expressive (though surely some is). It would probably be best if you don't take me to be arguing for what 'most Christians' believe - not least because we would disagree about what 'most Christians' believe. From my point of view your understanding of 'most Christians' equates to 'most living English-speaking Protestants that I have read about or spoken to'. The vast majority of Christian theologians in time and space have very differing views. Why 'theologians'? Well why not? If you want to argue that there are, eg, some US fundamentalists who believe stupid things then I'm not going to disagree with you!! But that conversation isn't interesting. The interesting thing, surely, is whether there is anything in the Christian tradition that is worth taking intellectually seriously. To find that out, you need to engage seriously with the most intellectually serious arguments, don't you? Hence - theologians.

Stephen said:
When you say it took you "many years of engagement with the issues to start properly to inhabit Christian language from the inside", you also seem to be hinting at this sort of neo-Wittgensteinian move: "You can't understand they belief system without actually going native and entering into it - something atheists are necessarily precluded from doing. So they can never understand what they are rejecting, certainly not without many, many years of immersion in religious practice."

Sam says:
Undoubtedly Wittgenstein has had a major influence on how I see the world (see Why I love Wittgenstein) not least in terms of how I understand my faith. I have no doubt that he would have understood my perspective!

By the way, I don't believe that atheists are completely precluded from understanding Christianity, or any other faith. I do believe that some sorts of atheism preclude such understanding, but it has less to do with the atheism as such than other elements (often logical positivism) that are unconsciously included in the mix.

Stephen said:
And there's also a reference to Wittgenstein's hinge propositions - something must be held firm if communication is even to be possible. You make "God exists" a hinge proposition, perhaps?

Sam says:
The language of 'hinge propositions' is a little unfamiliar to me, but that some thing need to be held fast in order for communication to take place - sure.

Stephen said:
As we move through all these vaguely presented moves and allusions, I get the occasional glimpse of something that you might, I guess, try to turn into an argument. But as soon as we try to give more substantive form to one, you've moved on to the next!

Sam says:
What you call giving more substantive form I call mistaking the grammar.

Stephen said:
Now, I really don't think this is what you intend, Sam, but this certainly could be a deeply intellectually dishonest strategy, that might allow someone with less integrity to endlessly give their critics the run around, perhaps while saying to him or herself - "These unsophisticated pygmies, they just aren't deep enough to fathom the depths of my world view!"

But perhaps you are unintentionally playing a similar game? Has that thought ever crossed your mind?

Sam says:
Yes, that thought does sometimes cross my mind, but only when I'm in conversation with certain sorts of atheist (it never crosses my mind when I talk with what I call 'sophisticated atheists'!) I don't believe that there is a lack of sophistication, certainly not in an intellectual sense. What there may be is a lack of patience and, maybe (from some commenters, explicitly excluding Stephen) a lack of genuine intellectual curiosity. Imagine someone sent back in time to the mid-nineteenth century and giving a lecture to the Royal Society about quantum physics, specifically the point that light can behave as both a wave and a particle. The members of the Royal Society would have all logic and evidence on their side if they stated that light could only be one or the other - and they would ask questions like 'do you even have a unified concept of light?' ;) In order for the members of the Royal Society to really hear what the time traveller was saying they would need to be willing to travel quite a long way from their initial assumptions before his points could even begin to make sense.

Which is why it may make some sense to spend time talking about the initial assumptions first.

Anonymous said...

Sam said "Yes, that thought does sometimes cross my mind, but only when I'm in conversation with certain sorts of atheist"

Curious that the "humourless" logical positivist sort should give you cause for doubting your reasoning when the more spiritual kind of atheist does not. Doesn't this suggest that the LP's are on the right track?

anticant said...

Oh dear! You couldn't make it up, could you?

Anonymous said...

Sam - you are really Alain Sokal and I claim my €10.

something funny I said...

Theological language is always analogical. Unlike analogies in more mundane language, these analogies can never be 'cashed' out with a non-analogical explanation - it's analogies all the way down.

Or is it that theological language is analogous to ordinary analogical language? If God made this world and us, and our ways including our languages, and if God wants to communicate with us, why the big problem with literal truth? When Jesus said He was the Truth, was that a way of saying "I am Analogous to something (sort of)"?

Jackie said...

As best as I can tell, Sam's god is comparable to the laws of physics. We don't talk about "a gravity," and we consider the force of gravity to be a necessary condition of the universe. Maybe Sam's god is like a moral/insight gravity. He senses it like migrating birds sense the magnetic north pole. Is this about right, Sam?

Steelman said...

I'm beginning to get the feeling that Rev. Sam's god is the active ingredient in our homeopathic universe.

But as long as it makes him feel better... ;)

anticant said...

I suppose the Rev. Sam, holding a C of E benefice, has subscribed to the 39 Articles. But does he understand and accept them?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam

read your thing on humourless vs. sophisticated atheism, and how you respect the former but not the latter.

What sort of atheist am I? I am very well versed with the various philosophical theories, and even many of the religious nuances, and certainly "get" the perspective of the religious, and how the "see" the world. But I think it's all cobblers. Even your sort, I'm afraid.

So which sort am I?

Sam Norton said...

Stephen - it's the other way round, I respect the sophisticated but not the humourless - and it's perfectly possible for me to respect people as a whole even if I don't respect the intellectual beliefs they hold - which is the mirror image of how you relate to your believing colleagues I guess.

As for what sort you are I honestly don't know - it is something that I have occasionally puzzled over, but not as often as I puzzle over the way you seem to ignore Wittgenstein's perspective on these questions. I would respectfully disagree that you 'get' the perspective of the religious (at least in terms of the viewpoint displayed most frequently on this blog). I think Wittgenstein undoubtedly did, and had great respect for, and insight into, the nature of religious belief. The way you phrased your last comment is revealing in that sense as you begin with the philosophical theories, then the 'religious nuances'. I find it hard to understand how someone who has studied Wittgenstein can be so rationalistic, as he was so comprehensively critical of that stance. (By the way, I'm very open to the charge that I'm doing an injustice to you here - it could just be that you are rationalistic in your criticisms of religious belief).

Wittgenstein commented that 'Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm' - and that was because they colluded in an understanding of religion as essentially rationalistic and propositional (the sorts of discussions we pursue here) - and he saw that collusion as a complete mistake, an incomprehension of the sort of thing that religious belief is.

Have you ever read Gareth Moore's 'Believing in God'? That is an excellent description of what it means to believe in God, from 'the inside', and from a point of view very influenced by Wittgenstein. I would be extremely interested to read a review by you of it.

Youngil Ely Loew said...

I really like Jackie's description of faith:
"As best as I can tell, Sam's god is comparable to the laws of physics. We don't talk about "a gravity," and we consider the force of gravity to be a necessary condition of the universe. Maybe Sam's god is like a moral/insight gravity. He senses it like migrating birds sense the magnetic north pole. "
And I think a lot of people sense the divine in this way... I think the reason people believe in God in because they have some kind of experience with him. The argument that Muslims and Alien abductees/UFO sightings make of personal experience is actually a statement in favor of the existence of God. Many different people are experiencing different parts of the same phenomenon, but interpreting it differently.
Sam can't describe God because he hasn't met him yet. He's probably experienced enough of him to have faith that he exists, but hasn't been able to conduct an actual conversation with him. I'm in the same boat... I think the difference is that Sam thinks that small experience is all he can get and that it is enough. I believe people have the ability to meet God face to face and talk with him the same way you and I are discussing his nature...
It's late, I'll post more later.

Anonymous said...

Jackie's gravity analogy is great in its way. It seems to say God is a fundamental property of the Universe. OK but lets not start embellishing the idea by ascribing motivation to it or trying to have conversations with it. In short the existence of such a "God" does not render any or all the trappings of theology or religion necessary or desirable. Anyone who starts trying to talk to gravity or claims "gravity told me to" is rightly regarded with suspicion.

As a slight digression although we do not talk about "a gravity" we do talk about gravity at a certain point usually meaning the size and direction of the force which arises. That is to say we often use the word "gravity" as a shorthand for "the effects of gravity" or similar.

Anonymous said...

Youngil Ely Loew

Next time anyone is going to speak to God (or any other supernatural for that matter) just remember to ask Him to sign the message with His cryptographic signature so that we can verify that it really is Him. No miracle required, no physical evidence, no need to bend the laws of space and time. Just sign it. Otherwise its just noise. True, this wont actually prove that the messages come from God but it will show they come from the same source at least. As Stephen might say "But I think you should take the plunge - go on, commit yourself to something!"

(Yes I know this seems odd coming from someone posting as anonymous but, not being omniscient or omnipotent I find it burdensome to remember yet more passwords and logins! Besides which I would like anything I post to be judged on its merits rather than its origin.)

Jackie said...

Youngil Ely Loew said: I think the reason people believe in God in because they have some kind of experience with him. The argument that Muslims and Alien abductees/UFO sightings make of personal experience is actually a statement in favor of the existence of God. Many different people are experiencing different parts of the same phenomenon, but interpreting it differently.

Ever do a double take and realize that what you thought you saw wasn't there at all? It doesn't take much to misinterpret stimuli. We already know that humans are illogical by nature, and we know that the brain can be tricked by sensory depravation, drugs, slight of hand, or even predispositions. (Like when I expect to see my cat, I see her instead of the dark sweater in the corner. A second look shows me my mistake.) How can we tell if experiences of gods or aliens are misinterpretations of mundane stimuli? Stephen wrote about this in March.

YEL, it wasn't my purpose to lean anyone on in my last comment. I'm just trying to figure out what Sam means by "God" so that we can have a productive discussion.

anticant said...

"I would like anything I post to be judged on its merits rather than its origin."

Then you definitely aren't God!

Anonymous said...

Anticant - I only make that claim when talking to Jehovahs Witnesses. :)

Papilio said...

We seem to have drifted a little from the problem at hand - that of evil. What I'd like to hear from the Rev Sam is, what evil would he call evidence against God? I'm guessing he would not react like the (apocryphal?) tale of the Rabbi who stepped off the train at Auschwitz and said: "There is no God." What then? A million dead at a stroke? A hundred million? Would some vast space rock, er, rock his faith?

When Dawkins interviewed Alister McGrath for his recent documentary, McGrath said that the 100,000 washed away by the tsunami were not on God's hands, but the one child who miraculously survived was down to Him. That seems to be a little selective doesn't it? It implies no blame, only ever praise; it means belief is protected by an impenetrable wall, which some would call irrational.

Finally it would be really useful if the good Rev could explain how he turned from atheist to theist, or point me to a post on his blog that describes it. Most conversions are the other way; it would be informative to know what kind of thinking pushes one in that direction. I'm supposing it was not like Francis Collins, who was converted at a stroke by an unexpected frozen waterfall in three streams that put him in mind of the Trinity?

anticant said...

"Belief is protected by an impenetrable wall, which some would call irrational."

Surely an oxymoron? Religious faith, by its very nature, is irrational.

Sam Norton said...

Papilio - go here for a bit of biography.
Also, part 2 of that might be an answer to Sally_bm's question about where Jesus and the Bible fit into my religion.

Sally_bm said...

I don't think I asked about how Jesus fitted into your philosophy- maybe that was someone else.

I still don't feel you've explained why you feel your God is worthy of worship, and what values there are to apply to Him, which are "beyond good and evil". Maybe you've said it but as we're crossing language game barriers, in your opinion at least, could you be patronisingly explicit for us?

Thanks. Oh yeah, and I appreciate your response to my challenge for a "unified concpt" of God. I suppose that is too much to demand, though I think what I was getting at is that I can't see a reason for all the traits you ascribe to God to be pulled together into one being. I also can't really see HOW they could all constitute the same being. That's not a being... but I don't have a better word...

Anonymous said...

papilio said "that seems to be a little selective doesn't it? It implies no blame, only ever praise; ..."

Well I suppose the other way of looking at it is like more modern theories of child rearing in which praise and reward for good behavior is greatly emphasized over punishment for bad behavior. Or perhaps as in some international policy where it is considered counter productive to mention human rights to certain regimes ?

This seems flawed because if seems to imply that the opinions of lowly humans can influence an omnipotent deity. It is a type of magical belief.

Alternatively if you've just seen a good fraction of the local population wiped out by some divine whim it would take a great deal of courage to wag a disapproving finger at the Heavens.

This is simply fear.

So are theists of this forgiving type closet shamans or suffering from theophobia?

The Celtic Chimp said...

Being the original poster child for 'humourless Atheists' I am fairly sure you are also 'humorless' Stephen.

I eventually had to give up arguing with Sam. His beliefs are so vague and insubstantial that I have come to doubt that Sam himself knows what he believes. I think
'God cannot be the member of any set' was the straw that broke the camels back.
I offer fair and honest warning to anyone with a healthy respect for actually taking a definable position. Debating with Sam is like going to the movies to see a film. There are tons of adverts for forthcoming movies and then the credits roll.

Anonymous said...

sally_bm

The unified concept problem I think is key. The attributes often claimed for God are not only not unified in the same way that a human beings personality is multi faceted, they are often logically incompatible or at best mutually antagonistic. One part of this is the problem posed by the (widespread) existence of evil. Is just doesn't sit well with "good" and "omnipotent".

I for one am not yet convinced that suffering is a logical necessity for moral or spiritual improvement any more than pain is a logical necessity for successful dentistry.

Papilio said...

Sam, thanks for the links. I'm not sure why an atheist would study theology... to me this is a vacuous occupation (I define theology as the study of nothing, since God doesn't exist). For an atheist to study theology in an abstract way, not expecting to be converted, is like a heterosexual man spending three years in a brothel and emerging with his virginity intact...

Your entry about scripture is informative also. To me, that there are errors in scripture is enough to discard the entire book: if it were a science text, it would be useless (that's why we don't use science texts from the bronze age).

Belief has its uses: if you can throw yourself into it, it must be very comfortable! Of course, the variety of God in question has to be just right... nagging questions like PoE are like an itch that can't be scratched, no matter how many different formulations of God are tried.

Sally_bm said...

"Belief has its uses: if you can throw yourself into it, it must be very comfortable!"

I think that's a little harsh, given the stress we're putting Sam through, and the threat he feels of eternal damnation should he put a foot too far wrong. etc, etc etc...

Kyle P. said...

""Belief has its uses: if you can throw yourself into it, it must be very comfortable!"

I think that's a little harsh, given the stress we're putting Sam through, and the threat he feels of eternal damnation should he put a foot too far wrong. etc, etc etc..."

Indeed, Sally, but I have to agree here.

Sam, you seem to believe in "god" purely because it makes you feel better about your life. While I won't begrudge you the opportunity to feel better about your life, I will say that that position will fail you in the end. If "god" isn't made of anything, then "god" doesn't exist. It's that simple. And no, I won't let you get away with redefining all the words that we used. :)

Anonymous said...

Kyle P.
"If "god" isn't made of anything, then "god" doesn't exist. It's that simple."

I think we need to pin down existence a little more here. What about the gravity analogy? Its keeping in my seat at the moment but according some theories is simply due to the curvature of space. What about evil itself? (oh look back on topic!)

Papilio said...

Kyle P: I didn't intend to demean Rev Sam. The Comfortable Place probably involves closing the blinds as well as relaxing back into the cushions... which he manifestly has not done.

What I meant was, in some ways I envy the certainty of believers: they are clothed in what seems to them to be indestructible armour, even if we might see it as "the Emperor's New Armour." Both theists and atheists know where they're going on their demises - neither will ever be proved wrong, and belief in a future state is necessarily of great comfort, provided you think yourself one of the chosen. (Of course, there is the possibility of a degree of selectivity to ensure that you are one of the chosen.)

anticant said...

I've no beliefs about where I'm going but I hope for endless, dreamless, peaceful sleep - no more, no less.

Sally_bm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally_bm said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q95kX_EP2Nk&feature=related

I like Bill Hicks' very non-religious persective on life better actually. See link above, if it works this time.

Sam Norton said...

Chimp - that's a very amusing image! I'd say two things to it though. The first is that 'the main event' isn't a proposition or a definition, it's a way of life. That's part of the problem - some people are expecting a movie, other people want to get on with a party. Which leads to the other problem - my 'vagueness' or 'slipperiness' is because I'm not going to get into a Procrustean bed. There are only certain sorts of answers that will 'fit' your presuppositions - but I reject the presuppositions (eg that God is an extra item in the universe). So for as long as those presuppositions hold debating with me is bound to be frustrating, sorry.

It's a bit like the proverbial joke about asking for directions, and getting the response 'I wouldn't start from here...'

Sam Norton said...

Chimp - I've said a bit more about definitions here.

anticant said...

Sam, having read your thoughtful and, in personal terms, moving linked posts, you seem to be saying that God cannot be defined – he can only be experienced. You are taking a similar attitude to that of my friend the late Bishop John Robinson – the “infamous” author of ‘Honest to God’ who created such a furore in the 1960s by attempting to replace literalist concepts of the Deity with the notion that God is “the ground of our being”.

The trouble with this approach, to my mind, is that such a God can only be known through private individual experience; there is no proof that he, she, or it actually exists apart from the conduct of professing believers. Looking at the way in which all too many religious people behave, they are not very good advertisements for their Deity.

If you maintain [rightly, I think] that you cannot coherently define any of God’s positive attributes, are you prepared to venture along the path of ‘negative theology’ and tell us what you don’t think God is? For if he is not anything, he must be indistinguishable from nothing and so his relevance is entirely a matter of subjective belief, and does not have any substantive actuality. In other words, a delusion.

God said...

God is good though, and for two reasons. Firstly, to be objectively good is to act in accord with God's will, which God always does. Secondly, either the atheist objector is good and rational or else she is not. If she is not, then who is she to judge? If she is, then she should do as she says God should do, allowing of course for their different powers. Now, there are starving children in the world, and I have yet to meet an atheist objector who does not have a few quid lying around for a rainy day, or who does not only because it all went on beer or shoes or such like. Do the math.

anticant said...

Hello god, welcome aboard.

I bet you don't give a tithe of your income to charity, mate.

You could sell the Vatican treasures and give the proceeds to the starving poor of Africa, for a start.

The Celtic Chimp said...

God,

That is a pretty bad comparison.
Imagine the Atheist in you tale has infinite funds. Under those circumstances the withholding of a donation would seem positively perverse. God does have limited funds right?

God said...

God owns every thing, so for what would any of it be sold? It was not a comparison, but a divine command, roughly along the lines of Do The Math. Here's a helpful hint: none of you do have infinite funds. And watch your logic: she should do as she says God should do, not "she should do as God should do." Thank you for your impatience (it shows you care).