Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teaching Atheism

I recently went to Los Angeles to give a lecture to the Atheists United group in Hollywood. There was a big turn out with lots of thoughtful atheists. I got lots of interesting input. Several people asked to be able to see a copy of my Powerpoint presentation:

Teaching Atheism

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God is Not Beyond Logic

It’s a widespread practice among believers to defend God from criticisms with some variation of “God is beyond comprehension,” “your logic is not God’s logic,” or “God it beyond the limitations of our logic.” Even many non-believers seem to be willing that these are fair points and that critiques of God can’t really survive this rebuttal.

But if we scratch below the surface on this kind of talk, we can see that it really doesn’t make any sense; it’s a muddle headed evasion. There is no “our” logic that is separate from God’s logic, or lack thereof. A lot of people who haven’t reflected on what they are saying will throw claims around like these, but they haven’t recognized that what they are suggesting is unintelligible. There are several problems with it. First, they don’t really want to go there. If they try to assert that God is beyond logic, beyond comprehension, or that God’s goodness (and evil) are things that we can’t fathom, then they have effectively disqualified themselves from making any assertions about him. If we can’t understand God’s goodness, or power, or nature, then we certainly aren’t entitled to assert that it is true that God exists or that God is good. If they want to say that belief is reasonable, intelligible, supported by the evidence, rational, or epistemically inculpable, then they can’t also insist that God is beyond comprehension. You can’t have it both ways. On what grounds would you stand where you could assert anything about God if you have categorically denied that we can have any vantage on God? Even worse, on what grounds could you possibly insist that belief in something like this is reasonable when it cannot, by definition, be accessed by us.

Second, there’s a long history on this issue and it’s not just atheists who are holding God to the bounds of logic. The non-logical theist (NLT) needs to Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Plantinga, Craig,Weirenga, and a host of other philosophical theologians who all agree that God’s properties are all had within the boundaries of logic. Without logic, there won’t be any way to say it is true that God is X, because logic is what allows us to demarcate between true and false. Logic and reason are not things you simply discard when the fancy strikes you. Without them, you’ve got no way to even make an assertion. Without them, human speech acts are just gibberish. To make an assertion, even one like, “God is beyond logic,” is to assert that there is some state of affairs that obtains in the world. A sentence of the form, “X is . . . . “ says that something—X—is one way and not another. People like to say that our logic is limited and there could be things beyond it, but if something is not a thing and if it doesn’t have properties, then it isn’t a something at all. To be, to have a property, or to exist is to be one way and not another. The claims “God exists,” or “God is beyond logic,” assert that it is not the case that there is no God, and that it is not the case that God is subject to logic. The irony, and the profound paradox, of the last claim is that the speaker employs the logic of the assertion to try to liberate God from logic. But there’s no escaping that making an assertion is making a claim about the way the world is, and it is denying claims about what the world is not. What rules of assertion are you going to employ to argue for or claim that “logic is limited”? Logic? Then it’s not limited. Something else? How do we discern truth from nonsense, and falsehood in claims about logic itself if not by employing it? Or should we just accept all claims about the limits of logic without any argument or reasons?

If someone tells you that God is beyond the law of non-contradiction, then they’ve just left the realm of any intelligible discourse. There’s nothing to talk about when the fabric of logic that makes assertions possible itself has been rejected. Within the philosophical community, it’s pretty much accepted across the board that the Stone Paradox creates a problem for an unrestricted account of omnipotence. No one who has thought about it seriously thinks that being omnipotent, where “omnipotent” means the unrestricted power to do anything, even logically impossible feats, is even intelligible.

What the NLT is usually trying to do is dismiss questions, objections, or problems that non-believers raise with the notion of God that is so often presented to us. If God is beyond logic, and beyond comprehension, it would seem, then we need not be troubled by what appear to be blinding contradictions and conflicts between different parts of the God story. Suppose the NLT is attempting to salvage a belief in God from problems generated by deductive disproofs or the problem of evil, for example. So he is saying, in effect, believing is correct, there really is a God because these problems are only problems of appearance not real problems for a God who is beyond our conceptual capacities. This all begins to sound a great deal like double speak in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. If God exists no matter what, in someone’s mind, then it really doesn’t mean anything at all for God to exist.

So either the NLT is subject to the same conceptual limitations that he says you are or he isn’t. If he is, then he’s got the serious dilemma of explaining how his belief makes any sense in a context where he insists that humans cannot form reasonable beliefs. If he’s not subject to the conceptual limitations and he can comprehend God, then he’s contradicting himself.

The atheist, even though they would usually don’t make this kind of dirty move, is entitled to take the very same view is the theist is doing it. The atheist can say, “Look, I know that it seems like to you that all of the evidence and all of the indicators—design in the universe, miracles, etc.—all seem to indicate that God exists, but there’s really just the Big Nothing. But the Big Nothing, the vast empty void, the universal non-consciousness, is so far beyond our comprehension, we just can’t fathom how there can be a Big Nothing despite the fact that there are all of these indicators to the contrary. The Big Nothing doesn’t conform to our puny theistic logic.”

Put the problem another way. If God is beyond our conceptual abilities, and that’s how he can co-exist with evil, or exist even though such a thing seem incoherent, THEN ANYTHING GOES. That is, why can’t it be that the only supernatural being is Satan, or Vishnu, or Sobek, or Eeguu, or the Giant Marshmallow and even though it doesn’t make any sense with all that we know about the world, the Giant Marshmallow is not subject our puny logical and conceptual limitations. This is, of course, the point of the whole Flying Spaghetti Monster movement. The idea that there could be some sort of divine, supernatural pasta creature that is the creator of the universe is completely absurd and defies everything we know about the world. But if the believer gets to pull the “X is beyond comprehension” card—the get-out-of-any-jail-free card—in response to any counter evidence, then the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as viable as God, or Satan, or the Giant Marshmallow. Since absurdities and counter evidence aren’t being allowed to count against the view, even in principle, then there can be no grounds by which to discriminate between an infinite number of asinine views. Clearly there is something deeply mistaken about a view that implies that there can be no rational grounds for preferring one hypothesis over any other. And now we can begin to see just how serious the cost of taking the NLT view is. Defending God, if we can call it that, in this fashion means giving up the rules that make belief, thought, and reasoning themselves possible. it’s the sort of thing you can say, but you can’t really be serious about because the very act of asserting it makes it clear that what you are asserting is nonsense.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Heaven and Justifications of Evil

Theodicies are, by and large, based on the view that because of a variety of constraints on logical possibility, omnipotence, omniscience, freewill, soul building, etc., this world is the world that God must make to accomplish his ends. People argue that God allows or inflicts evil in order to build moral virtue, to permit the exercise of freewill, or to punish. In some form or another, many of these justifications of the presence of evil presume that this is in fact the best of all possible worlds from God’s perspective. The reason that God permits the evils that he does is that to remove or prevent them would be to make things worse, on the whole, than they would be.

Heaven, as it is typically portrayed, is a better place than here. We are reunited with God, God does away with sin, all suffering is eliminated, God’s love is fully manifested to us, knowledge is complete, and so on. The particular details of the ways in which heaven is better than here are not important for my argument.

The paradox for the believer, as it should now be clear, is that they cannot both insist that God is constrained to allow evils in this world AND that he has the power to establish a better existence for us in heaven. If he can do it there, then he can do it here. And if he doesn’t do it here, then he’s not doing a good and loving thing that he should.

If heaven is a better existence than our current existence, then it is within God’s power to create a better existence for us than our current one. But God has not created a better existence for us than this one, so something is amiss in these two articles of believer doctrine.

The believer is caught between a rock and a hard place here. She either has to give up the notion of heaven, or give up the claim that the evils suffered in this world are tolerated by God because they are necessary for God to achieve his overall goals.

Neither of these options is going to be appealing. To give up either one is, more or less, to give up belief. Some justification for God’s tolerating evil is necessary for the believer if they are going to salvage the notion that God is an omni-being from the problem of evil. Heaven is what it is all about for most believers. The promise of a better life, reunification with God, and eternal bliss is a cornerstone of Christian metaphysics and doctrine. Without heaven, it’s not recognizably Christian.

Critics of this argument may miss the point. They will insist that suffering is beyond our puny powers to understand, or that it is deserved because of our depravity, or it is the result of our own exercises of power. We can provisionally accept any or all of these attempts to resolve the problem of evil. The gist of them all is that for one reason or another the suffering that ensues in this existence is the best way for things to happen, even though it doesn’t look like it. They are all attempts to reduce or eliminate the appearance that suffering is incompatible with God’s existence. None of these explanations will succeed unless we also accept the implicit premise that this world is, in fact, the best way that God could have set things up. If God could have set up a world where we could achieve moral virtue or exercise freewill without so much suffering, then he’s back on the hook for the problem of evil. Now the point of the argument is that if this existence is the best way that things can go from God’s perspective, then where is there room for heaven to be a better place? Any explanation of evil in terms of constraints that God operates under are going to apply ceteris paribus to heaven.

If God can grant us freedom without moral evil in heaven, then he can create it here. If God can endow us with moral virtue in heaven without genocides and tsunamis, then he can do it here. If God can reveal himself and his existence to us in heaven, then he can do it here. If God can create unsurpassable joy and love in heaven, then he can do it here. The believer can’t argue for restraints on God’s capabilities to explain away evil and then conveniently dismiss all of those same constraints in their characterization of heaven.

The goal of this argument is not that the problem of evil shows there is no God, or that there is no heaven, although those are both correct. The point here is to see that there is a profound and deep conflict in two of the most important pillars of the believer’s story about the world. If heaven is a better existence than this one, and it is within God’s power to bring that existence about, then all attempts to render God’s existence compatible with suffering are wrecked. These two views, held by billions of believers, are irreconcilable:

1) Heaven is a better place than this one.

2) The existence of suffering is consistent with God's being all powerful, all knowing, and all good.