Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Moving The Goal Posts

Frequently, when problems with a particular account of God are presented by the atheist, those that are more sympathetic with belief will respond by pointing out that narrow objections like that don’t prove that there is no God. Perhaps all they show is that one particular account of God doesn’t make sense. For the non-believer this perpetual moving of the goal posts can be exasperating. Every earnest attempt to get clear on just what is meant by this mystifying term God meets with evasions and sidesteps.

But let’s not forget the nature of the situation here. The burden of proof for the believer is not merely to change the story about God until they land upon one that doesn’t seem to have the problems pointed out by the atheist. Suppose that the atheist’s objections drive the believer back to some sufficiently vague, general, or abstract account of God that seems to be in less acute conceptual crisis. Has the believer now be vindicated? Is believing now epistemically inculpable? No. What this exercise may have produced is an account of what God could possibly be that is motivated by several arguments about what he cannot be. But redefining or reconceiving God in some fashion that lessens the blow of the problem of evil, or reduces the cognitive dissonance surrounding omnipotence, doesn’t give us reasons to think that that being actually exists. All that might show is that if there were a God then the sorts of being he could be are narrower than the believer held at the start. It’s no more acceptable to conclude that God is actual on the basis that some description is possible than it is reasonable to conclude that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because it is possible that there are. Belief in God doesn’t become reasonable merely by being free of obvious inconsistencies. There’s still the question of evidence—what are the grounds for believing that such a being is real? Unless we can answer that question, having a viable story of what God might be isn’t any more rationally convincing than the possibility that there are invisible, undetectable elves in my garden. Sure, their existence is compatible with the evidence—they can’t be seen or detected. But the mere possibility that something is real isn’t sufficient to make believing that it is actually real supported by the evidence. An account of God needs to make sense and it has to have some substantial evidence in its favor. We shouldn’t confuse far-fetched possibilities with justifications for realities.

In this shuffle, an important point often gets lost. There are some remarkably sophisticated and carefully articulated accounts of God out there being presented by philosophers. Consider this recent definition of omnipotence from Flint and Fredoso:

S is omnipotent at t in W if and only if for any state of affairs p and world-type-for-S Ls such that p is not a member of Ls, if there is a world W* such that Ls is true in both W and W*, and W* shares the same history with W at t, and at t in W* someone actualizes p, then S has the power at t in W to actualize p (Flint & Freddoso 1983, p. 99).

Other discussions of God’s knowledge, God’s consciousness, and God’s goodness are similarly technical and arcane. Recent explanations of omniscience have included substantial efforts to define God’s knowledge in light of the restrictions that Cantor’s theorem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem cast on truth.

But in the history of the origins of human religions, none of the accounts of God started out reflecting attempts to evade counter examples the way the modern accounts do. Originally, God was a simple, anthropomorphic figure with various character flaws, and little philosophical sophistication. Richard Gale portrays this dialogue with excess charity. Doubter’s questions and challenges to the conception of God have helped clarify the nature of God. One has to wonder, if these modern accounts of God’s nature are closer to accurate, then why is there no hint of any of them in any of the original accounts of God that founded the major religious traditions? Why did it take thousands of years to uncover God’s nature, particularly since by most accounts he desires that his nature and existence be known? And why is it only with non-believers persistent objections that God’s true nature slowly comes into focus?

No doubt it is a useful and challenging project to perpetually devise new accounts of God and his properties that resist more and more inventive counter examples. But we must keep in mind that doing so only addresses the hypothetical: if there were a God, then this is what he’d be like, not if we can give a sophisticated version of God’s description that isn’t obviously problematic, then God is real.

The same goes for discussions about God outside of the philosophy journals. If the non-believer is troubled by the seeming incompatibility of God’s existence with pointless suffering, and the believer responds, “God’s plan, God’s goodness, and God’s nature are beyond our comprehension,” that doesn’t give us any reason to think there actually is one. In fact, these defense-by-ignorance responses seem to give us even more reason to think that believing is not reasonable or supported by our evidence.

So the question remains: there’s not much point to constructing some seemingly internally consistent account of God that answers complicated counter examples unless we have some substantial reason to think that enterprise is going somewhere. Are we working out the details of something that we know to be true? If so, then on what grounds? (And will those grounds indicate that God's knowledge is defined in part by Cantor's and Godel's theorems?)

Or are we just exploring the conceptual details of a belief that’s going to be procured by faith in the end? If believing by faith is an acceptable route, then why not abandon internal consistency along with any need for evidence?


Anonymous said...

Consider this recent definition of omnipotence from Flint and Fredoso:

Omniscience ain't what it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Which theories of Cantor and Godel are you referring to? I know something of their work but I can't see how it would affect theology. Thanks!

Matt McCormick said...

Hi Cipergoth. See Patrick Grimm on this topic: "By Cantor's theorem, we know that the power set of any set is larger --contains more members--than the set itself. . . There can therefore be no set of all truths." (Impossibility Arguments, Cambridge Companion to Atheism.) And Godel's Incompleteness Theorems show that for any formal system there will be truths that are not provable within it. So again, the implication, with a lot of intermediate discussion, would be to cast doubts on the possibility of God's knowing everything. I'm no expert on the topic, but point, building on the work of Grim and others, is that we shouldn't take it for granted that omniscience is possible, or makes any sense, and that raises serious questions about the prospects for salvaging an adequately Godly definition of God given what we now konw about truths and knowledge of them.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the Socratic Method, in that the goal of Socrates may not so much have been to disprove the person in question, but to show the inconsistency of their account. They were, of course, free to offer another account if they didn't get frustrated and move along (e.g., Euthyphro).

On another note, I would be cautious (as I was told to do when I was naive of the subject) of using metamathematical concepts like Cantor's and Godel's to critique things (supposedly) about the real world (they would apply if analyzing God were a formal affair). For instance, Cantor's naive set theory has been replaced by ZF or ZFC due to the inconsistency of set theory as Russell brought out (i.e., the lair's paradox). And Godel applies to a theory, but what it does show is that if there is an ordinal ranking of theories (i.e., a theory larger and containing the one below it), then we can prove all the truths in one theory by appeal to a "larger" one. In metamathematics (which I'm only starting to educate myself on, I have some good surveying journals on it if anyone's interested) this is something they deal with (e.g., ordinal numbers), especially when assessing what axioms might be needed (or not needed) for some theory (e.g., set theory). There is nothing to suppose there might not be an upper bound (a largest ordinal) that all are less than, just like, in algebra, you can prove all polynomials in the complex number (sets can be ordered in such that the rationals are an extension of the integers, and the reals an extension of the rationals, and the complex an extension of the reals, an that's all we need).

In the end, what these theories demonstrate is formal limitations on a given model or theory of some logic. Whether that system of logic is how the real-world is related and organized needs justification (which is something I actually want to study, how can we say some mathematical or logical structure can be applied to the world, a kind of metamathematics of applied math as opposed to the usual pure mathematics). Thus, it is keen to keep in mind that truth under a logical system is always a truth under interpretation. Appeal to these kinds of truths to critique God may end up coming off like the creationist arguments against evolution by appealing to thermodynamics or other physical laws!

Anonymous said...

Douglas Todd says: Academic philosophers need to speak again of God

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the link, Reginald. Todd is completely out of touch with contemporary philosophy as far as I can tell. None of his strange, sweeping generalizations about modern academic philosophy are consistent with my experience. In my department, and in lots of ones like it in the country that I have had contact with the meaning of life, God, metaphysics, and the so-called meaningful questions of existence are ALL that are under consideration.


Anonymous said...

Atheists have a two-front battle.

Two theistic camps: the philosophers and the masses (I include the clergy, etc., in the masses).

The philosophers admit the problems with traditional accounts of god and the masses don't. Troublingly, the masses don't (there are some exceptions) because they don't care, for the reason you already alluded to, the concept of faith, a willful numbness to facts and doctinal inconsistancy.

Therefore, on the first front, logic is a sufficient weapon. (Although, as you rightly point out, the games of pure logic are empty without any evidence to ground accounts of god.)

On the second front, the messy front, atheists are caught up in a guerrilla warfare of door to door combat. Logic and evidence are weapons easily negated by faith filled IMDs.

I think on the second front, one which is far removed from the first, if not completely, the only possible route to victory is through the educational system. The parents belief systems need to be challenged in the schools, which is why so many theists want science's influence mitigated.

The second front is a political battle, and we need to enter some ugly holes.

The first front is the easy front. If we assume our adversaries to be intellectually honest, then the logic and evidence should continue to be on our side, and the goal posts will continue to move, reducing ever further god and the connection between the two fronts.

There is an interrelation, of course, between the lack of evidence (The Problem of Evidence?) and moving the goal posts: if the theist philosophers had any clear evidence the goal posts would be set.

In principle, then, I see no reason why the goal posts should stop moving, or, if they do, the god they delineate will seem completely different and irrelevant to front two.

In the end, our primary weapon we need to negate is the fetish of faith. We have to show that believing in something with insufficient evidence is not praiseworthy; it is just a form of hidden authoritarianism, as are all transcendental systems -- as they are removed from the realm of evidence to begin with.

Interestingly, purely logical approaches regarding the existence of entities (metaphysics) and faith are very similar when detached from the world: they are both irrationalities masquerading as reasonable discourse.