So, I was on The Thinking Atheist the last two weeks with Matt. And before going on the final night, the show’s host, Seth Andrews, submitted a very long, well organized e-mail that he’d received from a listener regarding the prior episode. It included a number of questions and concerns about statements made by all of the guests on the program, including me.
Whenever, I receive criticism regarding things I say, from someone willing to put the time in to communicate their concerns clearly and thoroughly, I try to listen. I was especially interested in this, as the topic of the program was “counter-apologetics”—something about which I’m not classically informed. So, I was already prepared for some justified correction, as I was clearly out of my depth. People who hear me on TAE know I’m informal and prefer a conversational style. I’m not out in the world doing formal debates—and, honestly, that’s not a format I suspect I’d enjoy. When I was initially invited on the podcast, I asked why I was included, since it was my view that Matt and AronRa (who was also on) were more than sufficient to cover a “Counter-Apologetics” topic. My inclusion seemed, at the very least, redundant. But it is what it is (to wax tautological). And I agreed to do it.
Out of several comments in the e-mail, only one was directed at me. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or slighted, but I would like to take the opportunity to reply to the author, G, here, starting with his original comment in full:
11:55 Tracie: “People want to talk about the attributes of God or the effects of God before they’ve actually demonstrated a God.”
I found this to be circular. If one doesn’t know at least some of the attributes that a God may have, how does one know when and if the demonstration is successful? Going back to our oak tree, if one knows none of the attributes or effects of an oak tree, how does one know when he is looking at an oak tree? How does one determine that tree X is an oak tree without comparing it to attributes of an oak tree? Must we first demonstrate it is an oak tree before we can talk about the attributes of an oak tree? In the same manner one must talk about the attributes and effects that a god would have in order to determine if that god actually exists. Luckily, the concept of God does carry with it necessary implications; so, we can look at those and work from there. Various concepts of particular gods carry with them distinct implications, as does the concept of no God at all; by examining all of these implication we may be able to come to some sort of conclusion; but, without knowing any attributes we cannot demonstrate anything at all.
The first thing I noticed was a slight shift in what I’d addressed, versus what he was addressing. That is, he is not actually addressing what I said, but is saying something else. I don’t think this is on purpose. It seems to be an honest error. But let me explain:
11:55 Tracie: “People want to talk about the attributes of God or the effects of God before they’ve actually demonstrated a God.”
I found this to be circular. If one doesn’t know at least some of the attributes that a God may have, how does one know when and if the demonstration is successful?
I have made a comment about “the attributes or the effects of god.”
But note that in G’s response, immediately he adjusts this to “attributes that a God may have.”
This is not a minor shift. In fact, it has some extreme qualitative fallout. G, in his full e-mail gave an example of oak trees growing from acorns, as an attribute of oak trees. I’m fine sticking with his choice of examples.
So, let’s say that you and I go to a local state park that is hosting a class on native trees of Texas. In that class, the instructor asks the class to list some attributes of oak trees. One person notes they grow taller than 10 feet high. Another person notes they are susceptible to oak wilt. I raise my hand and say that they propagate through rhizomes, and at this, the instructor interrupts to inform me that I am mistaken, and that this is not, in fact, an attribute of an oak tree. You then interject that oak trees propagate through acorns, and the instructor notes you are correct.
In this example, both you and I held a concept in our heads about what an oak tree is, and what attributes it possesses. However, the attribute I supplied, while it was an attribute of my concept of an oak tree, was not, in truth, an attribute of an oak tree, any more than “oak trees routinely drive four-door sedans” is an attribute of an oak tree. And the fact I conceived of such an oak tree has no bearing whatsoever on “the attributes of oak trees.”
The attributes of my concept of X are only attributes of X if my concept of X aligns with X. Without the ability to compare my concept of X with X, I cannot call attributes of my concept of X “attributes of X.”
My statement, that was quoted above, was about attributes god has, not attributes god may have. I am not concerned with what attributes any god may have—only which attributes a god has.
But also note G’s next comment concerning how we know if we are, in fact, looking at an oak tree, if we don’t know what attributes oak trees “may have.”
Knowing the attributes an oak “may have” does not help us identify the tree. What allows us to identify an oak is that we have a very good set of known attributes oaks actually have. If we only have attributes an oak may have—then that set of attributes necessarily includes (in all or part), attributes an oak may not have. If I say “it may be blue,” that carries with it the reality it also may not be. Whereas “it is blue” eliminates the potential it’s not blue. Knowing what attributes a thing may have helps us identify it, not at all. On the other hand, knowing what attributes it has, makes all the difference in the world when you need to identify something. It was, ironically, my attempt to identify what god actually was, that led me eventually to become an atheist. And, using G’s example of the oak, it is determined by comparing the claims to the reality of the referent in objective, external, manifesting “oak.”
We label the existent things that manifest to us. And we form a consensus around those labels: “That tall knotty thing with small leaves that is always green and very big and broad and fun to climb on—let’s call that a live oak.” And the rest of us say, “OK.” And the referent becomes the “live oak,” and from that day forward, all claims regarding live oaks are measured against the actual live oak to see if the claims are true or not. And in this way, the nature instructor is able to tell me that I’m wrong about how the trees propagate—and you are right. It’s a very simple and handy system, which works exceedingly well, when applied correctly. Labels point to referents. Referents become the metrics of the truth value of our claims. And here I will insert Sagan’s valuable point about referents to which we lack access, an the impact that has on our claims:
Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
Here is an example of how this becomes extremely problematic with regard to gods—referents to which we lack access (leaving us with no metrics by which to measure the claims to determine which are accurate):
A Deist would say that god created the universe and then left it to run itself—not involved, unconcerned, perhaps even unaware of what is going on with any of it now. However, a Calvinist would assert that god is not only involved, but directs every aspect and event within the universe—including arbitrarily sending people to damnation. Other theists would say god has varying degrees of involvement in the universe and varying degrees of concern or anger or other attitudes toward many things that go on with Earth.
These claim conflict. They have all been argued for thousands of years. And because we lack a referent in reality, it remains unresolved. Still being argued as hotly as ever by people who believe that within their own century, somehow, it’s suddenly going to resolve.
Going back to our oak tree, if one knows none of the attributes or effects of an oak tree, how does one know when he is looking at an oak tree?
This is actually my point. How can we know we are looking at a god if we don’t know any of god’s actual attributes? I don’t think we can. But that’s not because I’m being circular or difficult. It’s because we lack a referent in reality to allow us to tell the difference between true and untrue claims about attributes of god. This situation, created by theists, who cannot agree on a metric to differentiate true claims from false claims about gods, is not a problem that can be laid at the feet of atheists. When someone asks me “what evidence would convince you?,” they have already invented a situation where it’s all but impossible to answer, because I don’t know what a god is. There are some vague notions, but nothing specific and agreed upon to the point of usefulness. But bring me your external referent, and then start making your claims, and at that point you and I can compare your claims to a real god and make some determinations about their truth values. Without that, though, it’s claims predicated on claims, predicated on more claims, with no way of determining what is true—for thousands of years, as we have already seen.
All of the theistic positions I mentioned previously exist today, and have been argued for centuries—without coming any closer to resolution. This is what happens when you can’t trot out the referent to see who is correct and who is incorrect. You argue for hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years, without resolution, precisely because, as G says, “if one knows none of the attributes or effects of [a god], how does one know when he is looking at [a god]?” Clearly none of us do know if we are looking at a god because those who assert the attributes of god, are all over the map—giving us not only different descriptions of the attributes, but impossibly inconsistent accounts. And since we lack a referent to appeal to for authority on who is right and who is wrong—we just keep arguing through the centuries, with no end in sight.
How does one determine that tree X is an oak tree without comparing it to attributes of an oak tree?
This is actually backwards. The question should be “how does one determine that what they believe are attributes of an oak tree, are, in fact, attributes of an oak tree, without comparing them to an oak tree?” The oak tree has simply been identified and labeled by a consensus of English speakers. We don’t sit in a dark room dreaming of trees, and then go searching in reality to find the trees of our fantasies. That is not how “live oak” came to be “live oak.” Humans encountered referents, labeled them, and formed group consensus about those labels. And from then on, claims about things with those labels could be compared to the referents to assess the truth value of claims. And, again, as Sagan notes, without that referent, we are endlessly spinning our wheels. And this is demonstrated as true by, literally, thousands of years of unresolved disagreements regarding nearly all the claims about the attributes and effects of nearly all gods.
Must we first demonstrate it is an oak tree before we can talk about the attributes of an oak tree?
The manifesting oak in objective reality is the demonstration, not only that the oak exists, but also of what it possesses as attributes. Again, the process is not to invent the tree as a concept, and then go looking for it. The process is to encounter the tree, label it, and then build a concept of it based on observation and examination of the reality of that thing we just labeled as “live oak.” We learn about live oaks from live oaks directly, not from people inventing concepts of live oaks without ever having had access to one for anyone to observe. Our concepts of live oaks do not dictate to the trees. The live oak dictates to our concept. The oak itself demonstrates the concept is correct or incorrect, not the other way around.
> In the same manner one must talk about the attributes and effects that a god would have in order to determine if that god actually exists.
Actually, that’s backwards. If you were going to invent a god, like a designer might invent a dress, this would be how to do it. You’d dream up a concept and then start building it in reality based on your concept. But if a god exists independently of concepts, like your oak tree example, then you would simply access the manifesting referent in objective reality and observe its attributes. There is no need for me to “talk about the attributes and effects an oak tree would have” in order to determine oaks exist, because their existence is where we derived our labels and our concepts of oak trees. Additionally, upon observing it, I can determine what attributes it has, so that I don’t have to speculate about what attributes it may have, would have, or what my conceptions of it might be while they are divorced from observations. In other words, until you have a referent, I don’t really understand why you’re bothering with trying to build models you can’t vet or test for validity. Again, to quote Sagan, “Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”
Why are theists so hot to talk about god before we have a god to vet their claims? Just wait for the metric to be revealed, and then we can talk in an informed way, rather than out of ignorance. That discussion would be far more interesting to me, because it would be addressing something real, about which we could make valid assessments.
Luckily, the concept of God does carry with it necessary implications; so, we can look at those and work from there.
Unfortunately people can’t agree which implications are necessary. Pantheists claim the universe is god. Panentheists claim the universe is god, but that it has something extra special about it. Some people claim god is unique and singular. Some claim there are many gods. Some claim god has domain over everything. Some claim different gods have different, and defined limits to their domains of authority. Some claim god is asexual. Some claim there are male and female gods. Some claim gods can die or be killed. Some claim gods are immortal. Some claim god is not involved in the universe. Some claim god governs every aspect of it. Some claim god is all loving. Some claim god is vengeful and jealous. Some claim god would command genocide. Some claim god would not. Some claim god sanctions slavery. Some claim slavery is abhorrent to god. Some claim god wants them to kill those who believe differently. Some claim all religions are acceptable to god. Some claim gods were created from other things. Some claim gods are uncaused. Some claim demigods exist—hybrid gods generated by the unions of gods and other types of beings. Some claim gods are beautiful. Some claim it’s death to even look at one. Some claim gods are trustworthy, while others claim they are deceitful.
So, again—what is it I am looking for?
Various concepts of particular gods carry with them distinct implications, as does the concept of no God at all
This is correct. But we are now, again, back to “concepts of gods.” And that does not help us when it comes to a discussion about actual gods, unless the only actual gods are conceptual? Clearly the concepts of god are everywhere, and nowhere and any place in between. No two people I have met hold to the same concept of god, in fact. Theists can’t agree. And none of them seem able to supply a referent the rest can agree is a god (and these are the believers). It’s no surprise that in thousands of years, those who keep asserting they understand something about the attributes of god cannot agree on any of them. I certainly don’t plan to spend my time devoting myself to fixing their problem for them, unless someone can hand me the referent “god” to make my judgments at all useful. Until one of those theists can point to what, precisely, all these theists are talking about, discussions will be nothing more than continued centuries of spinning wheels. This is what I’d expect from a concept without a referent. It’s not what I’d expect from a concept with a referent that can be observed and examined in order to determine correct from incorrect claims.
by examining all of these implication we may be able to come to some sort of conclusion;
Actually, as I’ve been explaining, this is how theists have been doing it for…well, since the invention of gods. And it’s failed, and failed, and failed again, heroically. We have no metric. We have no measuring stick. Anytime anyone makes a claim about a god, it’s an attribute about a concept of god that I can’t verify. I would agree that it’s fair to toss out things that clearly conflict with reality or are logically inconsistent. However that still leaves us with a huge bucket of conflicting claims and no referent to lend itself to allowing us to sort out which claims, if any, are accurately aligned to the reality of any god.
but, without knowing any attributes we cannot demonstrate anything at all.
From your keyboard to my monitor. You’ve nailed it.