Thursday, September 4, 2008

The indefinable God

The Rev Sam said:

"i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position - that's part of what the word 'God' means - something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God's attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis."

A further thought on that. The very same move can and no doubt would be made on Eth by those who believe in an evil God (see The God of Eth). Consider this Ethian response to the problem of good:

Gizimoth: "There's too much good for this to be the creation of an all-powerful and evil God"
Booblefrip: "Ah, but you must understand that 'evil' as applied to God means something other than what it means when applied to humans."
Gizimoth: "What does it mean, then?"
Booblefrip: "Well, Evil God, and his attributes, are indefinable. He is, ultimately, a mystery, something beyond our comprehension."

Notice how this is often a combination of at least two ploys: playing the mystery card (see The God of Eth), and what we might call, "Now you see it, now you don't":

Make a claim about God. If anyone looks like shooting it down, quickly pull it back, saying, "Oh, you've misunderstood, you've taken me too literally!" But then vaguely sort of make the claim again. Then, if any one takes aim, whip it back and again accuse them of a crass misunderstanding. And so on. Keep going till your opponent finally tires and gives up. Then claim victory.

Other rhetorical ploys may be applied too. Perhaps pseudo-profundity...

Lash, clearly an influence on Sam, says, I seem to remember, something like "Whatever we say about God must then be unsaid."

Assert, but then deny! God is. And yet, he is not! God is everything, and nothing! He is good. But then, he's not!

Outside of religion, this is widely recognized as a classic bullshit artists' device (see e.g. Thinking from A to Z by Warburton). It's even got a name. I did a post on it ages ago (I wasn't even considering a religious use of it) - check "pseudoprofundity" where I said:

[[TEXT BOX: Another secret of pseudo-profundity is to pick two words that have opposite or incompatible meanings, and combine them cryptically, like so:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Try it for yourself. You’ll soon start sounding deep. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this sort of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

A particularly useful feature of these remarks is that they make your audience do all the work for you. “Freedom is a kind of slavery” for example, is interpretable in all sorts of ways that probably won’t even have occurred to you. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean.

None of this is to say that such cryptic remarks can’t be profound, of course. But given the ease with which they are generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.END OF TEXT BOX]]

Notice my line:

"Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean."

Particularly appropriate here, I think.

41 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Cross-posted and amended from the other thread:

"Well they cannot have it both ways. they cannot say God's unknowable, and then later on say he is, e.g. worthy of worship."

Yes we can. The point of the first part is to say that our understandings of God are always partial and limited, open to correction, liable to be mistaken.

(What's really at stake here is intellectual certainty, and it's my disavowal of intellectual certainty with regard to God that leads to me being called slippery and a bullshit artist etc. It's like trying to measure a balloon with a ruler - there's a connection but then you have to change the parameters immediately.)

However, partial knowledge doesn't mean you can't act on it. You don't have total and utterly certain knowledge about the people that you love - but you love them nonetheless. In the same way, you can't claim complete and final knowledge about God - you have to go through the via negativa and learn to unsay everything you want to say - but that represents a process of learning. You can get closer to something without reaching it.

As for the pseudo-profundity point, you've made an excellent general claim, but you concede that there might be some occasions when it's valid. The issue is - are religious traditions which use this sort of language valid or not? You haven't made that more specific argument.

Anonymous said...

Surely the difference between pseudo-profundity and the real thing is that the real thing can be explained in simpler terms.

Generally speaking I have found that if I cannot explain something I don't understand it either. I understand something partially I can explain the parts, and know the limits of my understanding.

Anonymous said...

Sam "What's really at stake here is intellectual certainty,"

I think intellectual honesty is the thing here.

Stephen Law said...

"What's really at stake here is intellectual certainty."

I don't think so, Sam.

Are you saying you refuse to claim intellectual certainty? Well fine. Me too. We are both fallible. That's not the issue that divides us.

I am just saying that, on any reasonable understanding of what you mean when you say, e.g. "God is worthy of worship", you then run into the problem of explaining why a worship-worthy being would unleash unimaginable horror on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years.

And you agree, don't you, that you have nothing like an answer to that question? We do have, here, v powerful evidence against the existence (or being, or being-without-being-a-member-of-any-sets, etc.) of a worship-worthy God, right?

Your analogy about love is odd. Surely the issue is not whether love is an appropriate attitude to have towards God. It's whether there is a good or worship-worthy God there to love.

Steelman said...

Sam said: "Yes we can. The point of the first part is to say that our understandings of God are always partial and limited, open to correction, liable to be mistaken."

I don't think the majority of Christians buy into this (and I think you've said as much, previously). Perhaps this is why the Christian tradition tends to change not by evolution, but by schism, fracturing into thousands of denominations?

"However, partial knowledge doesn't mean you can't act on it."

But what if the partial knowledge you have is not, say, 75% of the truth, but only 0.10% correct? And how would you know the difference?

Due to growing scientific knowledge, and the fact of a great deal of mystery still surrounding the nature of the universe itself, I think anything other than a humble agnosticism arguably puts theists pretty far out on a philosophical limb.

Unfortunately, those who subscribe to religion tend to act with a measure of certainty that quite probably exceeds their knowledge of what God wants or even is. If Christians are on the lower scale of correctness about the facts about God, whatever they may be, then Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) may be a wholly inappropriate response to deity.

Anonymous said...

via negativa - Once you have gone through the gamut of unsaying things; expressing things in negative terms, you are left with a "hole". To be sure one that has bounds in infinite dimensions but a gaping absence nonetheless.

The reason it is a hole is that there is nothing in it.

How do tell the difference between a hole in a polo and a hole in a sock without either the mint or garment present?

The reason you cannot say anything meaningful about God is that there is no such thing in any positive sense. It is a hole. Just a way of describing where the universe or anything you like ends.

Geert Arys said...

Instead of the "indefinable" God, I rather would call him: the "mystery-escape-artist" God or the "moving goalpost" God.

This is because "believers" in all religions do actually define God as the all-intelligent creator of the universe. They have even attributes for "Him" (mostly male ones). Islam has 99 of them, outside the attributes clear from the verses in the Qur'an.

However, each time an atheist tackles such an attribute, and clearly shows them as not beyond doubt and sometimes irrational, the "moving goalpost" tactics are used, or sometimes circles are 'flatly' squared (due to his mystery attribute).

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Sam Norton said,
"It's like trying to measure a balloon with a ruler - there's a connection but then you have to change the parameters immediately."

Comparisons have been made between God and the electron, but the Uncertainty Principle only renders certain properties of the electron ambiguous; that the electron exists in the first place is at least empirically determinable.

Not so with God. We cannot even discuss the ambiguous properties of something that we have absolutely no reason to believe exists in the first place.

I think Stephen new approach is better, in which he simply asks whether it's worth worshipping God, rather than trying to address whether God exists at all. The former question is far more straightforward, independent of the ambiguity of the term "God", and thus amenable to empirical assessment, imho: clearly, it really isn't terribly important to worship him, because it makes no tangible difference to the lives of people whether they do or do not.

Well, at least not beyond the well-described psychological sense of comfort that such beliefs afford some people.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Outside of religion, this is widely recognized as a classic bullshit artists' device

You got mad at me a while back when I said the same thing and drew the obvious conclusion.

James F. Elliott said...

A vague god is worthless god. Sam's already admitted that his faith is predicated on an experience he attributes to divinity and his Christianity exists because that's how he was raised.

All else is solipsistic back-tracking.

Big Bad Bob said...

What about a god which is neither good nor evil. An olympian god who is neither for us or against us - would fit the facts better ?

But would anyone be interested in an indifferent god who is unidentifiable from his neutral creation ?

Would it be a pointless hypothesis ?

Some people are willing to rationalize suffering for the payback of meaning. Others are willing to ditch meaning in favour empirical consistency.

Is anybody thinking or are we all just willing ? If this is an act of will rather than intellect cant we double our money and think either way as it suits us.

At the root of it, any long standing religious tradition must do both in order to be whole enough to survive.

Take my own : Christians are told to accept things as they are - without questioning - ( sounds quite atheisty ) and to believe that all things are working out to gods favour - ( sounds quite theisty).

If all thought eventually confronts a well of unknowing - a nihilistic black hole - wouldn't it be nice if they could be a little less rigid in their propositional construction.

Sam have you read Caputo ? After the death of god ? Just finished his delightful little book " what would jesus deconstruct ". Sure it would not appeal to the religious right - but to me it comes straight out of the heart of the jesus tradition.

Stephen any recommendations for a book which might go further into the sort of different philosophcal methods which are used in this dawkins debate ? A sort of dummies guide to philosphical methodology...

big bad bab said...

steelman,

" If Christians are on the lower scale of correctness about the facts about God, whatever they may be, then Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) may be a wholly inappropriate response to deity "

As a christian I couldnt agree more...

Can I just say their is an internal bug in the software of christianity - whereby it keeps deconstructing from itself into itself - the bug - the glitch is i think the literary figure of jesus in the new testament.

Hard to settle when your envisaged founder was not really for applauding yourself with what you know.

Just when you think you have really got it - you have really lost it. Is that profound or a fudge ?

anticant said...

"Clearly, it really isn't terribly important to worship him, because it makes no tangible difference to the lives of people whether they do or do not."

I couldn't disagree more! People who base their lives on religious belief perceive the world and behave entirely differently to those who don't. Throughout history, religion has provided the impetus for the most atrocious actions, and still does.

Stephen Law said...

I seem to remember you were a bit more forthright and direct BB - if not, my apologies.

Am I getting crankier and ill-tempered? Possibly.

Steelman said...

Big Bad Bob wondered: "What about a god which is neither good nor evil. An olympian god who is neither for us or against us - would fit the facts better ?"

Sounds more like a disinterested deistic god than the anthropomorphic hotheads of Olympus.

"But would anyone be interested in an indifferent god who is unidentifiable from his neutral creation ?"

Spinoza seemed to like that type of idea.

"Some people are willing to rationalize suffering for the payback of meaning. Others are willing to ditch meaning in favour empirical consistency."

Is there a middle ground here? I think a person can have both empirical consistency and meaning in their worldview, and without logical contradiction.

"Is anybody thinking or are we all just willing ? If this is an act of will rather than intellect cant we double our money and think either way as it suits us."

If I was just willing, rather than thinking, all my pet theories about life, the universe, and everything would always be proven true by my assessment of empirical evidence. I've been disappointed often enough in this regard to be pretty sure my worldview is based on logical, rather than wishful, thinking. Hey, at least I'm learning something (I think). As Carl Sagan once said, "I don't want to believe, I want to know."

"At the root of it, any long standing religious tradition must do both in order to be whole enough to survive."

Yes, but in what measure? A lot of critical thinking, with a bit of faith on top, is much more tolerable in an open, progressive society than the reverse!

"Take my own : Christians are told to accept things as they are - without questioning - ( sounds quite atheisty ) and to believe that all things are working out to gods favour - ( sounds quite theisty)."

Are you implying atheism entails a lack of questioning? Maybe true for the Bolsheviks last century, but not the present generation of atheists in the free world...

"Can I just say their is an internal bug in the software of christianity - whereby it keeps deconstructing from itself into itself - the bug - the glitch is i think the literary figure of jesus in the new testament."

Well, if all of modern Christianity was almost exclusively based on the Sermon on the Mount, atheists would have much less to complain about! Any word when the fully patched, better than ever, but unfortunately code bloated next version is coming out? :-)

Paul P. Mealing said...

I have to admit I have no real desire to take part in this debate, but I need to say something about Dawkin’s book. If it’s aim is to be divisive, then it succeeds.

Reading Dawkin’s book, I get the impression we’re at war. And when you’re at war, you have to take sides; you’re either for or against, there is no middle ground. Before I read his book, I’d never thought it necessary to judge someone according to whether they believed in a god or not. I'm yet to finish, but I still don’t, which makes me a wimp apparently.

I’ve argued against many religious fundamentalists over time (especially creationists) but I’ve never referenced Dawkins in any of my arguments. In his war against religious fundamentalism I support him 100%, but in his war against religion per se, I don’t support him at all.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Apologise: apostrophe in wrong place. Should read 'Dawkins' book'.

Paul.

anticant said...

Unfortunately, there IS a war - one being waged by religious believers of all stripes against reason and unbelief. However much different religions, and different sects within religions, squabble among themselves, they all unite in regarding those who don't believe in, or question the existence of, God as their most dangerous enemies. Insofar as atheists, sceptics, rationalists, and secularists are drawn into this battle they are acting purely defensively. For many of us it is about the preservation of democracy and an open society. Unfortunately, thanks to religious fanaticism, we don't live in a tolerant age.

big bad bob said...

Steelman et al

Thanks for your replys .

Due to growing scientific knowledge, and the fact of a great deal of mystery still surrounding the nature of the universe itself, I think anything other than a humble agnosticism arguably puts theists pretty far out on a philosophical limb

If this humble not knowing is so worthy cant we call it "God" - fill the whole. Paul I think me main problem with Dawkins is that while I am interested in what can be reasonably claimed under the heading of "god" Mr Richard seems to want to ban the word "God' - for something clearer and more defined like "nature".

is that as much part of the landscape of 1984 as my obscurantism.

Maybe the problem with sam and I's approach is we have too much of a literary buy in. God is a catch all term that keeps changing as it needs to.

Steelman As for the new version of the christian code - why do you think we keep groaning over the second coming :)

"always hoping but never having"

I repeat sams question : Anyone have any guidelines for determining between profundity and goddely-gook ?

b.b.b.

b.b.b said...

anticant,

Throughout history, religion has provided the impetus for the most atrocious actions, and still does.

I don't mean to be picky but that would have to be ideology and not religion. The atrocities of last centuary - Stalin Mao and the 3rd Reich - didnt need religion - ideas were enough.

Religion can be part of ideological madness but only part. Mankind is at his most self destructive when he is convinced he has won the argument.

As for fundamentalists - before we embrace a new wave of propaganda - the modern cult of the suicide bomber begins where ? the tamil tigers - a marxist leninist sect.

b.b.b

anticant said...

You're not being picky - just perverse.

OK, some atheist ideologues have committed atrocities too. But you can't deny that throughout history whenever the religious have held power they have slaughtered mercilessly in the name of their faith.

Read, e.g. David Ranan: "Double Cross. The Code of the Catholic Church".

Sam Norton said...

Stephen, I suspect we're not going to get anywhere with this, but it's worth pointing out that possibly the oldest book in the Bible is the book of Job, which is an extended treatment of just this question, and the answer it arrives at is: we aren't in a position to judge God. Sure, if you want to judge God he'll come up short - but to a believer that just seems foolish. The issue then becomes - what holds such beliefs in place even in the face of incomprehensible suffering? The Christian answer involves contemplating just that thing, when an innocent man is tortured to death - and says God is found on the other side of it.

Sam Norton said...

Anticant, all you're saying is that men do bad things, and when there is a centralisation of power, they do worse things. To make the charge stick that it is religion as such which causes the problem, rather than it being used as an ideology, you'd need to show that it was taught by the founder of that religion. Which you could probably do in the case of Islam, but you can't in the case of Christianity.

Stephen Law said...

Sam

The book of Job is pretty obviously not an "extended treatment of this problem"!

But anyway, the thing is: you judge God. Constantly. You judge he is good, worship-worthy, that he loves us, etc. You make countless judgements. But as soon as someone asks, "But why would he do a worship worthy God do this?" You play the "Oooh, you can't judge God" card.

But in any case, I am not asking you to "stand in judgement" on God. I am asking whether there is a God there to be judged.

My argument merely requires that I accept what you yourself say about him - that (if he exists) he is worship-worthy.

Stephen Law said...

Sam

You do realize that what you are giving us here is, really, just another variant of the cultists injunction not to question?

Don't doubt or question because:
(i) God will smite you!
(ii) There's a conspiracy against the truth!
(iii) That's the work of Satan!
(iv)These things are beyond your mere mortal ability to fathom!

It's one of the warning signs of an intellectual black hole. If you find yourself habitually repeating one or more of these things when others start to question, you should at least pause for thought, I think.

anticant said...

Sam - you really can't slip out from under my charge that religion motivates people to do bad things by saying "Ah, well, you see, they are misguided about the true nature of their religion."

What counts is not the actual facts, but what they believe. And there is abundant evidence that throughout history Christians have believed their God commanded them to kill "heretics" and non-believers in His name.

Far more abundant evidence, in fact, than there is for God's actual existence [which, btw, we're still waiting for you to produce].

Big Bad Bob said...

call me perverse

but

48 million dead say theres more to it than religion

Mao + Hitler + Stalin = 48 million

Stephen Law said...

Hi BBB. What's your point? That atheism is dangerous?

Not true. But in any case irrelevant as were are asking whether it's true, not whether it's dangerous.

big bad bob said...

No - Im am saying that exclusive ideologies are the fundamental danger - Atheism doesnt have any more immunity to abuse than Theism.

So this is not a factor in the argument - as you say.

Sam Norton said...

Er, Stephen, just to clarify - are you saying that the Book of Job is _not_ an extended treatment of the problem of suffering?

Secondly, I would deny that I judge God. I respond to God, that's a different thing. As for whether there is a God there to be assessed, well, I can't deny it for myself, but as for whether it can be rationally proven I'm more with Wittgenstein than with official catholic dogma.

Thirdly, one of the subtleties you might have missed in the Book of Job is precisely that Job DOES question God in many ways - it's just that his questioning runs into the sand.

Fourthly, the only one of your list that I'm culpable of is (iv) but with the distinct difference that I confess to being unable to fathom it too, in other words I think it's part of the human condition. What do you do in the face of human suffering? You've said that you believe in compassion and morality and so on, but I'm not sure that this says very much - unless you want to argue that Christians _don't_ believe in compassion and morality and so on?

Stephen Law said...

I wouldn't call it a treatment? More an injunction not to question God, because (i) he is cosmic and beyond our ken, and (ii) he'll smite you if you do.

Stephen Law said...

new post up by the way...

The Barefoot Bum said...

I seem to remember you were a bit more forthright and direct BB - if not, my apologies.

I was very forthright and direct; I try not to mince words. Is this a bad thing?

big bad bob said...

with dawkins' book still lingering in the background of this debate can I ask the rev.dr. incitatus to expand idea that quantum mechannics is no hiding ground to debunk dawkins.

Can what god is be isolated to be discussed - or does subject and object blur that god simply would simply have to be - like say gravity or electromagnetism.

An unfalsifible software patch ?

Is god actually an identifiable thing to be discussed - or to go into all that continental philosophy stuff an "event inside a name" ?



I read an interview with Rabbimeister Jonathon Sacks who said having a problem with suffering was itself a sign of faith - doing something about it was faith. Propositional Concepts - what is x,y,z so we can discuss it - were an obsession of greek philosophy and a distraction for european thought.

p.s. the full quote from wikipedia about dawkins and quantum :

Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times, while finding that "Dawkins' attack on the creationists is devastatingly effective", considers him "maddeningly inconsistent". He argues that, since Dawkins accepts that current theories about the universe (such as quantum theory) may be "already knocking at the door of the unfathomable" and that the universe may be "not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose", "the thought of how limited our comprehension is should introduce a certain diffidence into our attempted refutations of those who think they have the answer".

anticant said...

Big Bad Bob said:

"call me perverse

but

48 million dead say theres more to it than religion

Mao + Hitler + Stalin = 48 million"


Stalin was educated in an Orthodox seminary. Hitler was a Roman Catholic, and far from publicly renouncing Christianity he frequently invoked it in his speeches:

"The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life." - Adolf Hitler, ‘My New World Order’, Proclamation to the German Nation at Berlin, February 1, 1933

"I would like to thank Providence and the Almighty for choosing me of all people to be allowed to wage this battle for Germany," - Hitler, Berlin, March,1936

"Never in these long years have we offered any other prayer but this: Lord, grant to our people peace at home, and grant and preserve to them peace from the foreign foe!" - Hitler, Nuremberg, Sept. 13, 1936.

"If we pursue this way, if we are decent, industrious, and honest, if we so loyally and truly fulfil our duty, then it is my conviction that in the future as in the past the Lord God will always help us." - Adolf Hitler, at the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival on the Buckeburg held on 3 Oct. 1937

Anyway, this isn’t a numbers game. One deliberate killing in the name of religion or ideology is as wicked as the extermination of millions.

Sam Norton said...

Anticant, you don't accept the point when it's made by me or big bad bob, would you accept it if it was made by Stephen?

"From the Holy Inquisition to Auschwitz to the Gulag to Mao's Cultural Revolution to Cambodia's Killing Fields, the state-sponsored mass-murder of their own citizens is a speciality of Authoritarian societies, not liberal ones. If we want to avoid such catastrophes in the future, we should realize that religion, or the lack of it, is largely a red herring. An Authoritarian obsession with thought-control is not." (The War for Children's Minds, p54)

BTW Stephen, I'm enjoying the book (about half way through so far) and there's vast amounts I'd agree with - not least the desirability of teaching philosophy from an early age.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"call me perverse

but

48 million dead say theres more to it than religion

Mao + Hitler + Stalin = 48 million"


I don't think it was ever in dispute that irrational ideologies extend beyond the boundaries of superstition. On this I agree with Sam; look not to religion for man's ills but look to man, for religion is only his chosen sales pitch.

It should be emphasised that we who appeal to reason above all are as set against secular dogma as religious dogma. It might not seem that way now, but that's only because we're in a time period where secular dogma is in decline (perhaps temporarily?) relative to relgious dogma. It may well rise up again, either as a revived communism or atheistic fascism, or perhaps more likely an even more rampant and unforgiving strain of capitalism. We'll challenge it when it does, believe me.


So, yes, the charge of Hitchens' that Religion Poisons everything is unnecessarily focused; what poisons everything is the abandonment of reason and an unquestioning loyalty to dogma, whatever its narrative and/or eschatology.

Right now, the problem is mainly religious leaders relying on an unquestioning loyalty to dogma in order to facilitate a number of morally criminal endeavours, whether it be the undermining of the teaching of science and reason to our children, the oppression of a significant fraction of the community on the basis of sexual orientation, or other heinous acts too numerous to list here.

anticant said...

I don't think it's the same point. I read bbb's comment as implying that irreligious people are more amoral, or immoral, than religious ones [perhaps he will correct me if I'm wrong?]. Stephen certainly is not saying that.

The most effective antidote to authoritarianism is teaching children [and adults] to think rationally and independently for themselves. Religion does not do that.

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