Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Paradox of the Preface, and World Peace

Reprinted from Religion Dispatches

The epiphanies came as suddenly and strong as my newborn’s projectile spit-up. Yes, I realized, I SHOULD wear a burping cloth. And also, the Paradox of the Preface is the key to universal religious harmony and world peace.

It might also help you lose that weight, quit smoking, and find the man or woman (or both) of your dreams, but that is for another essay.

What is the Paradox of the Preface?

Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:

I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.

Such a refreshingly honest preface! So what is the paradox?

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.

And yet both beliefs can seem so plausible! Indeed—and here’s the key—even after we become aware of the implicit contradiction, both the contradictory beliefs remain quite appealing in their own right.

Thus the paradox.

But the key to world peace?

Well, there may be a number of ways to respond to this paradox. Amongst them, you might take the certainty in your fallibility to undermine the certainty in any or all of your particular individual beliefs. My thought here is that those who take this route are not the ones primarily responsible for disturbing the global peace. Or you might take the certainty in each particular belief to take away the certainty of your general fallibility. My thought here is that the folks who go this route—convinced of their infallibility—are generally the troublemakers.

My hope, however, is that these same people might, just might, be open to a third option, if only they were aware of it.

What I suggest, instead, is that we simply acknowledge the paradox: that is, recognize that both contradictory propositions are, in their own right, extremely plausible. In the preface case this actually seems quite easy to do. My ultimate hope, then, is that world peace will break out when enough people simply acknowledge the paradox as well and begin applying it more generally.

Why is that?

Because acknowledging the paradox allows you simultaneously to say two things.

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or perhaps Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), the right to bear arms (or the government’s right to regulate them), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, in the truth of (say) Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Got it? You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible. It’s what everyone (other than bakers) has yearned for since time immemorial: the proverbial cake, both eaten yet had!

Imagine, now, that all parties came to acknowledge the Paradox of the Preface as well. Then THEY could say that they are certain that (for example) Islam is true and everything conflicting with it is false—and yet acknowledge that they may be wrong without taking away their certainty.

Everyone could get what they most want: namely, certainty in the truth of whatever it is they are certain is true. This certainty can lead people to do all the things they should do when they are certain of a thing: defend it, live in accordance with it, try to spread it, etc. But once you add the proviso “but I may be wrong” you might, just might, no longer do it in quite the rather unpleasant or sometimes violent way that such things are often done.

Thus universal religious harmony and world peace.

I refer to this overall perspective as “Humble Absolutism.” You may believe, with certainty, in the truths in question, and that they are absolute truths. But you do it with the form of humility appropriate to the recognition that your belief might be false.

Now let me go find that burping cloth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Do the right thing -- whatever THAT means

Does morality truly depend on God?

Religious thinkers often hold that there is some important connection between morality--which actions are right and wrong--and the divine. But what connection is that, exactly? To answer, the great ancient Greek thinker Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) attempts to get clearer on just what morality itself consists in.

If you were to ask someone what “moral rightness” is, they might first provide some examples of right actions and perhaps also of wrong ones. Many would agree that murder is wrong and that pursuing justice is right. But merely citing such examples won’t get us what we want. What we want is the very definition or essence of rightness, the thing that all right actions share and wrong ones lack.

Now many of Plato’s contemporaries were polytheists, believing in the existence of many gods (such as Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, etc.). When questioned about the nature of morality one of them responded this way: rightness is that which is loved by the gods and wrongness that which is hated. While this does appear to be a definition, there is a problem: the gods of his time were, just like humans, constantly bickering about everything including morality. For any given action some gods might love it while others do not. But then the very same action could be both god-loved and god-hated, and so, by that definition, both right and wrong. And surely that could not be.

Believing only in the one God, the monotheist may avoid this problem: towards any given action the single God presumably feels only love or hate, but not both. But then another problem arises. If rightness were “that which is loved by God,” we couldn’t know that a given action is right or wrong unless we knew just what God loved and hated--and unless you are a prophet you have no way of knowing that. Morality would become unknowable to us!

And there is a deeper problem still. Even if we did somehow learn the complete list of actions God loves and hates we still would not have the ultimate definition of rightness. For consider this question: is the right action loved by God because it is right, or is it right simply because it is loved?

Suppose we answer the former: the right action is loved because it is right. But then the rightness comes “before” the loving, so to speak: it is the reason that the action is loved by God. That means that the action is right “in itself,” independent of God’s loving it. But then what makes that action right? We have no idea; we still lack the definition of rightness.

That suggests the other answer: an action is right because it is loved by God. That is, rightness simply consists in the fact that the action is loved. That would give us a definition perhaps, but it surely is not the correct one. For presumably any God worth believing in is not arbitrary. He doesn’t randomly love some actions and hate others. There must be some reason He loves kind and just actions and hates evil ones like murdering and stealing. And what could that be if not that the former actions are morally right and the latter ones are not? But this returns us to the first answer, and its problems.

So what is the relationship between God and morality, according to Plato? God no doubt does love the right actions but that doesn’t tell us anything about what their rightness consists in--and indeed implies that their rightness in fact is ultimately independent of Him. Morality does not in the end depend on God.

Source: Plato, Euthyphro. Transl. G. M. A. Grube, in John. M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Divine Huppity Hoo-Ha

“Rationalist” philosophers have long claimed that our reason can generate knowledge about things which go beyond what we can experience with our senses. “Empiricist” philosophers to the contrary have insisted that all genuine knowledge must in fact be grounded in sensory experience. The British philosophy A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) takes this empiricist idea a step further: it’s not merely knowledge that must be grounded in sensory experience but also meaning. A given sentence is only meaningful if it is “verifiable”: that is, if it is either a direct statement about something we can observe with our senses or logically leads to such a statement. Any sentence which is not verifiable isn’t even worthy to be called “false”: rather it is literally meaningless or nonsense, and therefore no more true or false than some random series of sounds. And if so, it certainly is not something one could be said to have any “knowledge” about.

This criterion of meaning now wreaks havoc with many areas of philosophy, including that concerned with God.

For what, exactly, is the meaning of a sentence such as “God exists”?

Well, “God” either refers to something which transcends the world or is somehow present within it. Most theists have in mind the former, but to say that God transcends the world is precisely to say that He is not accessible to sensory observation. But if so then the sentence “God exists” is not related to anything observable and therefore, by our criterion, as meaningless as a sentence like, say, “The huppity hoo-ha exists.” To avoid this conclusion some may insist that “God exists” entails the existence of certain regularities within the world, perhaps even the specific laws of nature. But then the sentence “God exists” must either mean simply “there exist regularities in the world” or it means something more than that. If the former then the sentence is true but not useful to the theist: asserting that God exists amounts merely to asserting that there are regularities in the world, which even the atheist can accept. But if the sentence means more than that then once again it transcends sensory observation and is therefore meaningless.

Either way the theist is not in good shape.

This result also sheds some light on the age-old question of the conflict between religion and science. There can be conflict only where the sentences of one are inconsistent with the sentences of the other. But that occurs only if both are uttering genuinely meaningful sentences. If religious sentences are not genuinely meaningful then they can in no way conflict with any scientific sentences.

This may seem bad for theists but in fact many theists ought ultimately to agree, or at least Ayer suggests as much. They commonly admit that God transcends our intellectual capacities, but that is to admit that God is unintelligible--and what is unintelligible cannot meaningfully be talked about. Or they say that God is an object not of reason but of faith, accessible only by some purely mystical intuition that cannot be put into words. But if it cannot be put into words then one is bound literally to talk nonsense when describing it!

This is not to say that religious experience or feelings have no value. It is only to say that religious sentences are not properly meaningful sentences. Whatever “truth” religious belief might contain, it is not truth in the way in which ordinary sentences are true--in which case there can be no such thing as genuine religious knowledge, or knowledge about God.

Lest this give comfort to the atheist, however: note that the sentence “The huppity hoo-ha does not exist” is no more meaningful than the sentence claiming it does.

The whole debate between theists and atheists turns out to be a meaningless one!

Source: Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London, UK: Gollancz, 1936). 2nd. Edition, 1946. Reprinted by Dover Publications (New York, NY: 1952).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Everywhere At Once: The Problem of Omnipresence

"God is the soul of the world--and the world is therefore His body...."

One of the traditional attributes of God is His omnipresence: God is “everywhere.” But this idea is immediately problematic. The world is filled with physical bodies separated by small, large, and vast gaps of empty space; if God is neither a physical body (as traditional theism says He is not) nor empty space, then where exactly is He? And if God is “simple” in the sense of not being composed of any parts (as traditional theism also says He is), then how could He be present both here and there, for such divided presence would seem precisely to divide Him into parts? Indeed what could it mean to say that God is present even in any one location, much less in every?

The American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) borrows some ancient wisdom to make some sense of divine omnipresence.

The first point to recognize is that anything we say about God must rely on analogies and metaphors. Theists tend to invoke interpersonal relations: God’s relationship to his creatures is like that of a parent to a child, a ruler to subjects, or a teacher to students. But the great ancient philosopher Plato invoked a quite different, intrapersonal analogy: God’s relationship to the world is like that which a mind or soul bears to its own physical body.

Think about our relationship to our bodies. We conscious souls are a single “simple” indivisible reality while our body is a diverse society of realities, composed of smaller bodies composed of still smaller bodies. In a sense we “rule over” our organs and cells; our thoughts and decisions move large numbers of them, for example when we choose to eat dinner and our entire body heads towards the kitchen. In so doing we preside over the coming to be of our cells, over their constitution and organization. We are quasi-deities in our own bodily system.

Yet at the same time we are also constituted by our bodies, our cells, our molecules.

And that is how we should think about God: not as entirely removed from the world but as embedded or embodied within it. Not as some remote eternal being ruling from afar but as one governing from within, just as we govern our own bodies.

Now how can this illuminate the idea of omnipresence?

Consider: some things we know vividly and directly, such as our own thoughts and significant changes occurring in our bodies. Other things, such as what is going on elsewhere or with others, are known only indirectly, by inference. Similarly, some things we have direct power over (such as our own volitions and bodily movements) while other things we can control only indirectly, through intermediaries. Since direct knowledge and power are superior to indirect knowledge and power, God must have direct knowledge of, and direct power over, the world as a whole.

And that is what His omnipresence is: God is “present” in or to the world precisely insofar as His direct knowledge and power extend to every location in the world, just as we ourselves have direct knowledge of and power over our own bodies. In that sense we too are present in and to our own bodies, even to the “gaps” within and between our cells and molecules--which answers the first problem above. So too the “simple,” undivided being which we are may now be said to be wholly present everywhere our body is present--which answers the second problem.

What makes this particular region of matter and not some other region our body, in fact, is just this knowledge and power we have concerning them.

Which makes the world, therefore, God’s body.

(1) Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
(2) Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And behold, it still IS pretty good

“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

It might have been easy to agree with this verdict after Day Six of Creation, when God renders it. But now? A quick look around reveals much that does not seem very good at all: everything suffers, decays, and dies. If the perfectly good and all-powerful God is responsible for the existence of everything, then how could there be so much imperfection and evil in the world?

It’s a hard question, and which continues to vex philosophers to this day, but the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides (1135-1204) thinks it can be answered.

Consider, to begin, the difference between light and darkness. Light has genuine being or existence, and wherever it does exist something actively produces it, some source of light. But darkness has neither genuine being nor must be actively produced: it’s what you get when there is nothing to produce light. Similarly creatures who can see have a genuine property: seeing is something we do and sight is an ability we possess. But a creature who is blind does not possess some other ability for blindness; not seeing is not something it does. Rather, blindness is what results in the absence of sight.

The natural evils of the world, then, are like darkness and blindness, with no real existence of their own. Terrible things like poverty, illness, and death are really nothing but the absence of wealth, health and life. Once we recognize this then we see that God does not create evils after all, for these evils are not “actively produced.” Everything God creates is in itself good. But goodness is a matter of degree, and when He produces things with less goodness than we might like, we call it an “evil.” But in itself it is just a lesser degree of that healthy goodness we desire.

And indeed we often show great ignorance in our judgments about what is evil! We naturally think of our own illnesses and deaths as great evils and wish they could be avoided. But that doesn’t really make much sense. We are physical beings made of matter and it’s the nature of matter to decay; to wish that we didn’t become ill or die would be like wishing we material beings were not material beings. But that is not to wish that we were healthier; it’s to wish that we didn’t exist at all, since a non-material being wouldn’t be us! And nobody wishes that.

Our judgments about evil can also be remarkably self-centered. If something happens against our personal desires or interests we immediately condemn it as evil, as if everything were all about us personally. But individual people, and even all humanity, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world--a world which is not made worse because some beings enjoy less goodness than others but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of beings it contains. We may not like it but the world just might be better off overall, as whole, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world as a whole is only good if things go well for us in particular?

So everything God does is good, to various degrees, then and now, Maimonides concludes--and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge as an evil our own rank in the relative distribution of goods.

Source: Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chs. X-XII. Transl. M. Friedländer, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1904/1956).

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Ménage à Trois

For many people “God” is an abstraction, something to be analyzed logically and debated philosophically, something we make arguments about and whose existence we try to prove. But to conceive God as a problem to be solved, the Jewish existentialist thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965) thinks, is to misconceive Him. Like other thinkers before him, Buber stresses that religious belief is to be grounded not in philosophy but in some form of direct experience; but unlike his contemporary, the German thinker Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), he finds what Otto calls the "numinous," the “wholly other,” to be too remote and impersonal to be the proper object of that experience. Rather it is in our most personal relationships with others that we develop our most personal of relationships directly with God.

To be a human being is to be in relationships. But there are two different sorts of relationships, Buber suggests, which we may designate by the phrases “I-You” and “I-It.”

The I-You relationship is characterized by intimacy, mutuality, dialogue, exchange; it is a two-way relationship in which we treat the other as a genuine person with needs and interests to be explored and respected. We are thus directly engaged with that other as those needs and interests are directly present to us.

The I-It relationship to the contrary is one-way: the other is a mere object with no intrinsic ends of its own, something which we may simply use or exploit or dismiss. Here there is no direct engagement: we may think of the other any way we like, mediated by our own concepts and ideas, however it suits us.

Our typical I-You relationships are with other persons, naturally, and I-It relationships with “things,” but they are not restricted in this way: we may also have I-You relationships with a pet, or a tree, or even with inanimate objects, and we may similarly have I-It relationships even with people--as we do, for example, when we think of others as mere objects to be used for our own ends.

There is nothing wrong with I-It relationships, at least when they involve mere objects. But we become fully human only through the I-You relationship with other human beings. When we treat other people as objects, as “It”s, we lose something of our own humanity.

What does this have to do with God?

For many people “God” is an abstraction to be analyzed logically and debated philosophically. But to conceive God in this way is to conceive of Him as an object, an object of thought, and so it is to have an I-It relationship with Him. To the contrary we must aim for an I-You relationship with God: one where God is directly present to our experience and not mediated in any conceptual way.

And indeed that relationship in fact is always present to us--to be found in every genuine I-You relationship we enjoy! God is not merely Otto’s “wholly other” but in fact is also wholly present in all our I-You relationships. It is thus no accident that we speak of God as being a “person” since it is in our relationships with persons that we discover God--at least when we put aside our reasoning and language and concepts, our arguments and debates.

And so God is neither a principle nor an idea nor an object; nor is He the conclusion of some philosophical argument. Rather God is something to be experienced within our proper relationships with other beings. We speak with God, in effect, whenever we speak with another genuine You.

Thus every particular You affords us a glimpse through to the eternal You.

Source: Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923). Transl. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Room Without Rants (Or, The Sorry State of Public Discourse)

They talk a lot, and loudly, and all at the same time. If they were your family during Thanksgiving, they’d be talking with their mouths full and the football game blaring in the background. It would be almost amusing if it weren’t in fact rather tragic.

I’m referring, of course, to the nonstop talking heads who can be found at almost any hour of the day, talking nonstop, all over television and radio. They talk about everything and nothing, so much so that they actually blur the distinction between talking about something and talking about nothing. They are, alas, the face – or perhaps I should say the food-stuffed mouth – of public discourse.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Not even when it comes to the more controversial topics of public discourse: politics, the economy, “death panels,” and in particular the crucible within which these all are raised beyond the melting point, namely the cluster of issues relating to religion, faith, and God. As I was researching my new book The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine, in fact, I discovered a very appealing alternative. The religion debate shall serve as my example, but the points in fact generalize to all forms of debate.

There are primarily four sorts of people, it seems to me, who participate in debates about God: the reasonable theist, the reasonable atheist, and unreasonable versions of each.

By a “reasonable theist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined towards belief) in God but who is open to exploring (and critiquing) that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including perception, experience more broadly construed, and most importantly reason. The reasonable theist desires not merely to believe in God, but to believe in God in the strongest and most coherent way he or she can – which requires investigating, in a genuinely open-minded and frequently critical way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available.

By a “reasonable atheist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined to believe) that God does not exist but who is open to exploring that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including again, most importantly, reason. Such a person recognizes, in particular, that to reject belief in God in a reasonable way is to reject the strongest and most coherent versions of theism – which in turn also requires first investigating those theisms in a genuinely open-minded (if frequently critical) way.

“Unreasonable” people of either persuasion, meanwhile, are roughly everybody else (including, unfortunately, myself much of the time).

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God you are, generally, in the presence of very reasonable persons, both of the theist and atheist variety. But when you turn on your TV or listen to your radio or read most of today’s periodicals and even best-selling books, you are generally in the presence of not very reasonable persons, of both varieties. What you witness is often about as appealing as your uncle Fred’s screaming “Touchdown!” with his half-chewed turkey bulging from each cheek. There are the loud voices and the raving rants. There is the invoking of labels and the calling of names: theists are foolish, irrational, close-minded and crazy, while atheists are hedonistic heathens, selfish and soulless sinners. Mostly there are people talking – shouting – right past each other, there is lots of noise and very little significance, and there is definitely, most definitely, no listening.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Public discourse cannot generally be on the same level as scholarly discourse; of course not. But discourse can be reasonable even when it is widely accessible, even when it dispenses with jargon, Latin phrases, and little logical symbols. Public discourse in fact could learn a lot from the famous thinkers, not specifically about their therefores and reductios and if p then q’s, but about something more general. For when you enter the presence of the famous thinkers you are in a room dominated first and foremost by respect – not merely for the other occupants of the room, but for something more fundamental: respect above all for the norms of reason, of reasonable debate, and for the very act of inquiry itself.

This is a room where the conversation is at non-rock-concert decibels. This is room without rants, where points are made and defended and – here is the amazing part – there are actual pauses in speech where other people can get not just a word in but whole paragraphs, and respond, actually respond, in a relevant way, to the points the speaker is actually making. There is no name calling here. Or maybe there is some, for we may call what goes on, in this rant-less room, a name which has become increasingly irrelevant in public discourse in recent years: namely, a conversation.

This need not be imagined as a warm and mushy love-fest, of course, replete with herbal tea and frequent group hugs. The word “conversation” here characterizes only the genuinely participatory nature of the discourse. “Conversation” can, and in this case does, include many diverse kinds of content, even the kind more regularly associated with caffeinated beverages: argument, disagreement, and debate.

For to those people committed to the norms of reason, reasonable debate, and ultimately to the act of inquiry itself, one thing quickly becomes clear above all else: reasonable people may (and generally do) disagree about almost every important topic. What that means is as simple as it is profound: namely, the sheer fact that someone reaches a different conclusion from yours doesn’t itself mean that they are unreasonable.

And once you realize that you realize something else.

This: that you can learn a tremendous amount from people with whom you disagree, as long as they are as committed to the act of inquiry as are you. For if they disagree with you it is because they have reasons they find persuasive: arguments they find compelling, objections which seem to them to undermine your own positions, and so on. Well, if you really want to believe whatever it is you believe on the basis of genuinely good reasons, then who, we might ask, do you want to talk to: the person who already agrees with everything you believe, or the person who has discovered problems and objections and counter-arguments to your beliefs?

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God, the most startling thing you discover is precisely that: the widespread recognition that they can learn from those with whom they disagree even the most profoundly. Historically the famous thinkers from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions have read each other’s works, debated each other’s positions, and learned from each other, even as they diverged in their conclusions about as radically as one can. The same goes for thinkers from competing denominations within any one of these traditions.

And the same goes too, most of all, for theistically-inclined thinkers and the atheistically-inclined.

Or rather, to return to my own labeling and name-calling above, it goes for the reasonable theist and the reasonable atheist. They may reach quite opposite conclusions in the end, but you can see, as you look at my description of each above, that they both will spend much of their time engaged in precisely the same activity: investigating, in a genuinely open-minded (and frequently critical) way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available. It is no accident that they each might well make each other’s best, most productive, study partners. For their goal isn’t to “score points,” or to “win” the argument -- but instead to reach the truth, or at least the best approximation to the truth of which we are capable. And that is something that just might best be accomplished precisely through genuine conversation amongst disagreeing parties – that is, conversation governed by the norms of rational inquiry and all that that entails.
The lesson for today’s world is obvious: much goodness ensues when those conversing are reasonable non-ranters who, as a bonus, often swallow before speaking.

But don’t just take my word for it: ask such thinkers as the Jewish Maimonides, the Christian Aquinas, and the Muslim Averroes.

Or don’t take anyone’s word for it. Think it through for yourself.

Though, of course, it is only in a room without rants, in the end, that you can even hear yourself think.

[Adapted from an essay originally appearing on www.religiondispatches.org.]

Monday, August 10, 2009

"The God Question" on tour

Much of the past week or so has been spent promoting my newly published book, The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine. I've done a number of talks and signings at bookstores, churches, and synagogues, and, so far, about a dozen radio interviews -- with a bunch more scheduled, so check the website (www.god-question.com) to see if my mellifluous voice can be heard in your city any time soon.

One thing I've learned from the experience is there are a lot if interesting and interested people out there -- people who want to think more carefully and deeply about the idea of God, both those who are inclined and those who are disinclined to believe in the existence of a being fitting their idea.

A second thing I've learned is that many of these people are truly surprised to discover that the idea of God can be pushed in a lot more directions than they have imagined -- those inclined to believe discover that their belief becomes richer and more sophisticated as they explore what famous thinkers have said about God, while those disinclined to believe discover that the thing they reject is a lot more resilient than they had realized.

A third thing I've learned is that it's awfully hard to get people to even know this book exists unless I pretty much tell them directly about it myself. That's worked fine for my immediate circle of family and friends, but it sure would be nice to get some word of mouth going. So if you're reading this -- go out and tell someone!

And finally I've learned that almost everyone -- at the talks and signings, and the radio hosts interviewing me -- inevitably asks me whether I believe in God.

Ought one to assume that I do believe in God because I wrote this book?

I find myself presenting the following response. Generally one of the first questions my students ask me at the start of the semester is whether I believe in God; and generally one of the last questions of the semester is the same one. That reveals two things: first, that I didn't answer the question the first time, and second, more importantly, that they were not able to tell what my views were throughout an entire semester of discussing the issues.

That seems to me to be exactly right. I see my role -- in this inquiry in particular, but as a philosophy teacher in general -- as one of a facilitator: I aim to lay out the most interesting or important ideas and arguments, objections, responses, and so on, bringing out what is best or strongest about them, and then to let the student (or the reader) make up his or her own mind. I wouldn't want anyone to be influenced by my own opinions -- either to agree with me or to disagree with me -- since the terrain is rich and interesting and, like all philosophical issues, not one which is close to generating any sort of consensus. So it's not my business to tell you what to think. It's only my business to help you sharpen your thoughts, and provide you with as much relevant information as possible, in the clearest way I can.

So no, one doesn't have to believe in God in order to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous religious thinkers have said about God. Nor does one have to disbelieve in God to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous non-religious or anti-religious thinkers have said. Reason-oriented believers and reason-oriented disbelievers can learn an awful lot from reason-governed conversations on the subject.

For this is indeed the ideal of a life of reason: one reaches one's conclusions on the basis of the ideas and arguments themselves. Just who is making them does not matter.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In the beginning was the beginning

You can read in the Bible that in the beginning God made the heaven and earth. But unfortunately the Bible doesn’t quite explain what that means. The whole notion of the “beginning” is actually very problematic--for it invites the question, which many have raised: “What was God doing for all those eons before He created the world, and why did He wait so long?” The great early Christian thinker St Augustine (354-430) notes his own temptation to give the jesting answer: “He was getting Hell ready for people who pry too deep.” But he admits that the question deserves a genuine answer. He is quite sure that before God created the world He did nothing at all, as His creating occurred “in the beginning.” But that still leaves us with many problems.

For example, if prior to creation God spent vast ages doing nothing, then what could have suddenly moved Him to create? And could God, whom many conceive to be eternal and unchanging, even undergo the sort of change required to transition from not creating to creating? But if not, if one insists that God is eternally unchanging, then His will must also be eternally unchanging. But His will is that by which He acts; He does things by willing them. If His will (like He) is eternally unchanging, then shouldn’t the world created by His will also have existed eternally, as long as He has, in which case it has no beginning? In short, how could an eternal and unchanging God suddenly create the world at a given time, when prior to that act of creation there was nothing other than Him?

So what was God doing before He created the world?

Nothing. But not quite in the sense you might think.

For one must recognize, Augustine observes, that time itself is something created by God, and the “beginning” of the world is also the beginning of time. So understood, it’s not the case that countless ages passed before God’s creative activity; before God created the world--heaven, and earth, and time--there was simply no time at all. But then it makes no sense to ask what God was doing “before” He created anything since there was no “before.” And since time itself begins with the world, at all actual times, beginning with that first moment, God has been busy creating the world and keeping it in existence. We don’t have to say that God suddenly switched from first not creating to subsequently creating. There never was a moment when God wasn’t creating.

Of course this now raises a new problem. For if there was no time “before” the cosmos, then the world has existed at all times--and so itself seems to be as eternal as God! But wouldn’t that put the world on a level with God? Isn’t what makes God unique precisely that He is the only being that exists eternally, while all other things come and go?

True, Augustine replies, the world has existed at all times--since time itself arose with the creation of the world--but God Himself is eternal in a different, more profound sense: He is outside of time altogether. Every created thing comes and goes, waxes and wanes, with the passage of time, but the eternity of God is like His entire being existing unchangingly, permanently, all at once.

So the world has existed since the beginning, but only God simply exists, period, eternally immune from the ravages of passing time.

Source: Augustine, The Confessions of St Augustine, Book 11.

Friday, July 24, 2009

God and the beginning

Today we'll just raise a few classic (related) questions. Maybe next time we'll look at some classic answers.

In the Bible it says that in the beginning God made the world but it doesn’t quite explain what that means. What was God doing for all those eons (for example) before He created the world? Why did He choose just that moment, and not some other, to create the world, or was that just an arbitrary decision? (Could God ever make purely "arbitrary" decisions?) And if there was a “before” – as there must have been, if God Himself existed before the world -- then didn’t something already exist independently of Him, namely time – in which case God has not actually created everything? Or could we say that God created time, too, when He created the world? But then wouldn’t we want to ask what He was doing before He created time – which already presupposes that time existed, for there to be a “before”? And how could He have created time, anyway? Doesn't something already have to exist in order to do anything, such as "create" -- in which case God must have existed "before" He created anything, in which case time already existed on its own?

These questions are discussed in The God Question (www.god-question.com) by thinkers such as Augustine, Saadia, Avicenna, Ghazali, and Averroes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chances are the world is not by chance

The “design argument” for God’s existence has a long history. From the ancients through the medievals the order (or “design”) found in the natural world was thought to demand some supernatural explanation. This line of thinking culminated in William Paley’s famous 18th-century “watch analogy”: just as you would conclude that a watch you found on a deserted beach was designed by some intelligent being, so too you should conclude that the world as a whole was made by an intelligent designer.

But then came Darwin. The apparent order in the biological world could in fact arise by random mutations and natural selection. No designer was needed to produce an eye or wing or anything after all. The “design argument” for theism was dead.

Until recently that is, Paul Davies observes--for it has now been revived in a new form immune to the Darwinian challenge.

For focus now not on the biological realm but on the laws and properties of physics itself. Unlike living things, these have not been subject to random mutation and evolution. If order or design is found on this level of the world then it simply cannot be explained by Darwin.

And it is.

That the world is governed by stable laws at all is itself remarkable; it could just as well have been chaotic or disorderly. But more importantly, the laws seem precisely fine-tuned specifically to produce life as we know it--including beings such as ourselves, with consciousness, rationality, and morality. For that life depends very sensitively on the precise form of the laws and on the specific values that nature has assigned to fundamental entities such as the masses and charges of various particles, the strengths of different forces, the speed of light, and so on. Each of these things could have had any of an infinite number of values. Gravity could have been ever so slightly stronger or weaker; the electron’s charge could have had been ever so slightly greater or less. Had any one of these been even slightly different then our world or anything remotely like it could not have existed.

The odds against all these variables simultaneously having precisely the one value necessary for this world are quite literally astronomical.

If your friend drew even two consecutive royal flushes in poker you’d immediately suspect him of cheating. Why? Because when something incredibly unlikely occurs it’s very difficult to believe it occurs by chance. Yet even vastly more unlikely is that precise combination of physical values, the only such combination, that would produce the world we inhabit. By parity of reasoning we should conclude that this world has not arisen by chance.

Sometimes people object as follows: of course the world we inhabit has these specific physical features, for otherwise we wouldn’t be here to discover them! Given that we are here it’s impossible that physics be any different, so we shouldn’t be so surprised at what we find.

But that misses the point. Of course given that we are here it follows that the world must be ordered appropriately. But what is incredibly unlikely is that we are here--that the one combination of fundamental physical values which would produce a world of any value is the one that occurred.

And when something incredibly unlikely occurs it is difficult to believe it occurs by chance.

(1) Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Ch. 8: “Designer Universe.”
(2) Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

If the world is your premise

Religious philosophers looking at the natural world are often on the defensive, defending God’s existence from the many miseries the world inflicts upon us. But sometimes they go on the offensive, arguing that the natural world positively demonstrates God’s existence. They claim that the world reflects a certain intelligent order; that (for example) biological organs and organisms reflect the kind of intelligent design we find in our own human artifacts. And indeed it’s easy to be impressed (as the famous 18th century thinker William Paley argued) when you study biology, and tempting, even, to reach the conclusion that like our artifacts the world must have some intelligent designer or maker.

But that, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) thinks, is a temptation which one ought to resist.

For Paley's argument depends first of all on an analogy between the world as a whole and the human artifacts we know to be caused by designers. But in general we can only reason from effects back to their causes in this way when we have observational experience of the effects following from their causes. With artifacts we have often witnessed their production by human beings. But when the effect is (as in the case of the world) singular, individual, and without specific resemblance to any artifact, and where there is no possibility of observing the production process, we simply cannot reason backwards to its cause.

This becomes clearer when we examine how little the world can really teach us, at least if we restrict ourselves to concluding nothing more about its cause than is strictly warranted by the effect itself. We ought to renounce (for example) the infinity of this alleged designer; for since the world is, as far as we can tell, finite in proportion and nature, we may not infer anything greater of its cause. Nor can we infer the designer’s perfection or his freedom from mistakes. For even religious philosophers (in their defensive mode) admit that the world is riddled with imperfections. If they insist that the world’s “order” demonstrates it has a designer then they must also admit that its imperfections demonstrate his!

Yet even supposing the world were perfect we still couldn’t infer its designer’s perfection, since for all we know he brought the world about very inefficiently, by trial and error, by creating a long series of universes all botched and bungled until he finally got it “right.” And how could we infer that there was just one designer? Complex structures designed and made by humans typically are brought about by whole teams of individuals. If religious philosophers insist on the analogy between the world and our artifacts then they ought to reason their way to polytheism, to the belief in multiple deities!

In fact we can’t legitimately infer there is any designer at all. For all we know the material world has for eons been undergoing randomly changing arrangements of its innumerable particles all on its own. Some of these arrangements appear “ordered,” of course, while others not; and obviously that arrangement which includes ourselves must appear “ordered” since we could only exist on the supposition of order. But that hardly means this order was intentionally designed. It might just be the random product of a long but random series of variations. No designer necessary!

In short, if the world is our premise then it might in the end also have to be our conclusion. No amount of reasoning can legitimately take us to belief in anything beyond the world itself.

Source: David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts II, V, VIII. Richard H. Popkin, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1980).

Friday, June 19, 2009

You "ought" to believe in God

Moral considerations prove the existence of God--or at least oblige us to believe in it, according to the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Kant actually rejects Anselm’s and Descartes’s arguments for the existence of God, but that needn’t mean he rejects theism itself. Indeed he goes on to offer his own rather original argument to that end; although there may be hints of the strategy in Aquinas and others, Kant is the first explicitly to use moral considerations to prove God’s existence. Or perhaps more precisely, morality does not so much “prove” God’s existence as oblige us to believe in it.

Moral agents, it seems clear, ought to promote the realization of the highest good. For surely we would not be acting rightly if we sought to bring about less than the highest good! But “ought implies can,” as philosophers like to say: one cannot say that someone “ought” to do a particular action unless that action is actually possible for them. For example, we would not say of you that you were morally obliged to end world hunger, for that isn’t even remotely possible for you. At most we might say you were obliged to make small steps in that direction, such as giving to charities.

But if we ought to promote the realization of the highest good and if ought implies can, it follows that it must be possible for us to promote the realization of the highest good.

But now the highest good has two components. The first is moral virtue, and this is entirely in our power. But the second is this: the world would not in fact manifest the highest good unless its moral agents were also happy, and happy in strict proportion to their virtue. To be sure, it is not to become happy that we act morally: morality is a matter of doing what is right for its own sake, not in order to promote our happiness. But imagine a world where the virtuous people suffered grossly and the evil people prospered! Clearly something would be wrong about such a world. Just as clearly, therefore, the highest good for the world would be one where one’s happiness is proportional to one’s virtue.

But we ourselves do not directly control most of what goes on in the world. We do not have power over the laws of nature, for example. There is therefore nothing in our power to ensure that happiness be distributed in proportion to virtue. And indeed just looking around it may seem very questionable that happiness in fact is so distributed. But for that even to be possible, to be something it is reasonable to hope for in the long run, it’s clear we need to believe in a being who could bring it about: a being who obviously must be supremely good and powerful and in charge of the causal structure of the world.

For the highest good even to be possible, in short, God must exist. And it is possible: we are obliged to promote it as we saw, and could not be so obliged unless it were possible.

It follows, Kant concludes, that God exists.

Or at least we must believe it to be so. For we are obliged to aim for the highest good and we would be incapable of aiming for that unless we believed that it was possible. Putting it this way may not quite prove that God in fact exists. But it would make belief in God morally necessary for us: something we must believe as strongly as we believe in morality in the first place.

(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason. Transl. Lewis W. Beck (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985/1956), 128-136.
(2) Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Transl. T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (New York, NY: Harper, 1960), 4-7.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not even God can know what we will freely do next

Who wouldn’t want to know the future? Think of the mistakes you could avoid, the dreams you could achieve, the profits you could make! And lots of people would like you to believe they can know the future--by astrology, by reading palms, by interpreting dreams, and so on. In reality, of course, these people are more interested in your money than in the truth. According to the famous ancient Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BCE), however, when it comes to having knowledge of the future (or foreknowledge), even God is not much better equipped than Madame Condessa at her little shop behind the bakery.

Why? Because the idea that God has foreknowledge seems to have a very unsettling consequence: that it’s impossible for human beings to have free will. And that we have free will is something we simply cannot give up.

For suppose that God does know all events in advance. Since God could never make mistakes, whatever He knows about the future must in fact come to pass. But nothing can happen unless it is caused to happen by something preceding it. So if it’s really true that a given event will occur, then it must also be true that immediately before that event some other event will occur which causes that event to occur. But then if that other event will truly occur, then it must also be true that yet another event will occur before that one, causing it to occur, and so on. If God foreknows all events, then, all events will be caused to happen by earlier events in turn caused by even earlier events, and so on. But then everything that occurs will be predestined to occur and therefore unavoidable. The choices and actions of human beings are events like any others. So if these too are predestined and unavoidable, then we would never in fact choose or act freely.

So if God knows the future, we do not have free will.

Think about what that would mean! Suppose you choose to do something good, to help a stranger in need. If your choice is caused by events prior to it, events over which you have no control, then you really have no control over your choice. But then there would be no reason to give you any moral credit for your choice since it wasn’t even up to you, ultimately, that you made that choice. By the same reasoning we could no longer blame bad people for their bad deeds, such as murdering and stealing--since they would not be any more in control of their behavior than you are. From this it follows that all praise and blame, all approval and reprimand, all honors and rewards for good deeds and punishments for bad deeds, would be unjustified.

What a disastrous situation--a calamity for human society!

Well, there is a way to avoid it. This disaster follows only if we hold that God knows the future. Since it’s simply unacceptable to hold that human beings have no control over their actions, that there is no point to praise and blame, that--in short--we do not have free will, then we must instead deny that God foreknows our actions.

That may, admittedly, diminish our conception of God to some degree.

But such is the cost of freedom.

(1) Cicero, “On Fate” and “On Divination.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Could God create a stone so heavy He couldn't lift it?

Believers in God generally agree that God is omnipotent or all-powerful, or able to do all things. But it's also widely held that God is also perfectly good, which would seem to mean that there is something He cannot do, namely sin. It further seems plausible to believe that not even God could change the past, since it no longer exists and is therefore not around for any causal powers to affect it. And then there is our title question, versions of which have been around for centuries, which seems to admit only two possible answers: either God could, or could not, create such a stone. But if He could, then there could be something God cannot do (namely lift that stone); and if He could not, then there already is something God cannot do (namely create that stone). Any way you think about it, it seems there are or could be things God cannot do: sin, change the past, lift or create that stone. And how could God be omnipotent if there could be things He cannot do?

To answer, one must get clearer on what it means to say that
God is omnipotent.

The great medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests it’s this: that God can do
all things that are possible. But which things are these, exactly? Well, Aquinas says, something is said to be possible in two senses: either in relation to or for some power, or absolutely, in itself. Lifting a spoon is said to be possible for human beings because we have the power to do so; and it is possible absolutely, in itself, because the idea of “lifting a spoon” doesn’t involve any contradictions. Now we shouldn’t say that God can do all things that are possible in the first sense, in relation to His own power, since that amounts merely to saying that He can do all the things He has the power to do –- which is true but rather uninformative. God’s omnipotence should therefore be understood in the second sense, as His ability to do everything that is possible absolutely, in itself; that is, to do everything that is logically possible, that does not involve a contradiction.

Some may feel that this is not enough; that God’s power is
such that He can do not only everything logically possible but even everything logically impossible –- that is, even things involving contradictions. But though this sounds impressive it actually doesn’t say very much. Consider some contradictory thing, such as a round square. You can form the phrase “round square,” but if you think about it you’ll realize that the phrase lacks any real meaning: if something is round it’s not square, and if it’s square it’s not round. To insist that God could make a round square is therefore to utter a literally meaningless sentence; it’s not really to add anything to His power. And if the alleged ability to do this contradictory thing doesn’t really add to God’s power, then neither does the inability to do it detract from His power.

Now understanding that God’s omnipotence is His ability
to do all logically possible (non-contradictory) things, Aquinas may resolve our puzzles. No, God cannot sin. But to sin is to fall short in some way; it is to be limited in one’s power to do as one should. Obviously an all-powerful being would be unable to do this, since His very power ensures that nothing could limit His power. So the idea of an all-powerful being sinning is the idea of an all-powerful being that is limited in its powers –- a contradiction. God’s inability to sin is an inability to do the impossible, so it’s not, therefore, a genuine limit on His power.

Similarly, that something is past means it occurred; to
change it would mean that it didn’t occur, which contradicts its occurring. So expecting God to be able to change the past –- or create a stone so heavy an omnipotent being like Himself couldn’t lift it -– is like expecting Him to create a round square. He can’t do any of these. But that’s not because His power –- to do all possible things –- is limited, but because none of these is, in itself, a logically possible thing to do.

Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.25.3