How Not to Define God Out of Existence…
To make my position here as clear as possible, I will again quote some of Tom’s last post and then comment below. I hope readers don’t mind this approach.
Tom writes: “If our topic were science’s position as the one trustworthy method to know all that could possibly be known about reality, it would be easy for me to challenge you multiple ways in just a very few words: What does science understand about free will? What about enduring human identity? what about rationality? What about consciousness? What about meaning? What about purpose? What about ethics? What about the origin and fine tuning of the universe? What about the origin of the first life?”
First of all, Tom’s point here makes no sense: it doesn’t count against a method of knowing – whatever it might be – that it can’t answer every question that one could pose. By analogy, the very best strategy to win a given election might be to run a bunch of negative ads on TV. And yet that election might still be lost. If so, this doesn’t for a moment mean that running a bunch of negative ads wasn’t the best strategy available. The modern world attests – loud and clear – that science is by far a more successful, robust and reliable way of acquiring the deepest knowledge about our universe than, for example, revelation and religious authority. As philosophers of religion often point out, there is extraordinary agreement among scientists all around the world about the most fundamental issues, and this agreement contrasts strongly with the profound disagreement among sincere, passionate religious individuals coming from different faith traditions. Science does not have a lot to say about some of the questions that Tom mentions. But this doesn’t in any way suggest that the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, Scientologist, and so on, and so on, has a better method of knowing.
And yes, I would be willing to talk about all the questions mentioned above in one blog post. Although my expertise is limited, I think I could give a pretty compelling summary of what science has to say about the relevant issues. Many of the answers are incomplete for sure. But the historical trend is absolutely unequivocal: the gaps available for supernatural deities like the God of Christianity to occupy are shrinking at an exponential rate.
Tom writes: “You find theism’s claims untrustworthy because we cannot test them in repeatable, laboratory-like manner. I’d like to see you phrase that request in a meaningful manner, answering, Just what is it in theism that ought to be repeatable that way? The life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Hardly. Then what? The burning bush? The raising of Lazarus? Walking on water? Prayer answers? I’m not sure what it is you are calling for.”
First of all, I didn’t say that theism’s claims are untrustworthy because they can’t be replicated (like the claims made by chemists, which can generally be replicated in a laboratory setting). All I said was that repeatability is a desideratum – it’s something desired – because it helps to protect against someone making an assertion – e.g., “the angel Moroni visited me last night,” “I became enlightened under the Bodhi tree,” and “I had a revelation from Jesus Christ” – out of delusion, self-deception or trickery. There are plenty of sciences (for instance, the so-called “soft sciences”) that typically do not involve controlled experiments. In these fields of investigation, though, one typically deals with bits of evidence that can be intersubjectively checked, and this is what helps to guard against the three problems mentioned just above. A Homo erectus femur is good evidence because you don’t merely have to take someone else’s word for it: you can always go check for yourself if you’ve got doubts.
When someone makes a extraordinary conjecture – e.g., that species are not fixed by change over time, or space and time actually form a continuum rather than being distinct entities – there must be extraordinary reasons for thoughtful people to accept it as true. A claim like “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead” is pretty extraordinary by any measure! What would it take for me to believe it? The same thing it would take for me to believe any of the other many, many ancient stories of strange, supernatural happenings: I would need some really convincing evidence. An event like being raised from the dead is not repeatable the way relating the pressure and heat of a gas is repeatable. Thus , one must look for considerable intersubjective agreement about exactly what happened. But this is not what we get in the Bible – a document written thousands of years ago, back when people commonly mistook neurological disease and mental illness for demon possession. (The Bible even mentions the wonderfully silly story of Jesus driving a couple demons into a herd of pigs, who then drown themselves, if I remember correctly. In the twenty-first century, given all we know about psychology, neurology, biology and physics, this story isn’t believable for a moment. At some point in the distant past it might have been – and one might have even been rational to accept it, given the evidence available then – but not today.)
“I know that you have a reason for asking for repeatability: epistemological error-correction. It’s a way of preventing error and delusion, and in fields of knowledge where repeatability is an available option, it is a very useful option. To make it the standard for knowledge, however, makes it impossible in principle to know anything about a personal God even if he exists.”
Notice that this has absolutely nothing to do with definition. This isn’t defining God out of existence. Here’s my approach (I could use variables here if that would impress people): first, think hard about what it means to be an epistemologically reasonable person. Most people who spend their lives thinking about such things concur that evidence is what makes beliefs reasonable to accept. Furthermore, it seems like this evidence should be checkable, either through intersubjective observability of specific events or through the repeatability of event-types that can be instantiated at different times. We can’t repeat the singular event of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, but we have copious amounts of evidence, confirmed by multiple sources. And there is a limited number of scientists looking at images of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, but the experiments being conducted will be run again and again so that those experts can be confident in the results.
The point being: all of our hard intellectual work has led to the (tentative but robust) view that beliefs are (more or less) justified in proportion to the evidence that supports them. Now let’s ask the existential question: Is Allah real? What does Tom think? What about the reader? For me, the answer is negative because I just can’t find enough evidence – and I’ve looked! – to convince me that belief in Allah is reasonable. I’m not at all defining Allah out of existence here. I’m just putting forward a basic standard of epistemological reasonableness – one that propositions from “the earth revolves around the sun” to “I had cereal with walnuts for breakfast” to “smoking causes cancer” all satisfy perfectly well – and then applying this standard to the possibility of Allah’s existence. The exact same thing can be said the Christian God, then – a God who’s three completely distinct persons who are also completely identical in substance, a God who many people today still believe created species as immutable types, and so on.
Tom writes: “If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*”
I think Tom is confusing “inappropriate” here with “doesn’t give the answer that I want.” My standard of knowledge – which, again, is one that every single widely accepted scientific theory meets, and indeed it’s one that most of our mundane beliefs meet too – definitely is appropriate to the question of whether God, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Preta, Moroni, Jibril, etc. are real beings or mere fictions devised by pre-scientific peoples to make sense of a strange and mysterious universe. If any of the corresponding existential propositions fail to satisfy this standard, then the rational thing to do is to reject them! This is precisely why I don’t believe (with a high degree of certitude, but not with absolute certitude) that Jibril, Moroni, Preta, Zeus, Vishnu, Allah and the God of Christianity exist. This has nothing to do with definition, as Tom seems to think. It has to do with highly plausible norms of justification and facts about the current evidence available.
So I’m just not seeing Tom’s point here. But maybe I’ve just missed something.