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Dec 21 2011

Assuming God Exists…

Let’s assume, for the moment, God loves us.
Let’s assume, for the moment, He’s real.
Let’s assume that He helps us fight Satan,
And He answers our prayers when we kneel.
Let’s assume that His power is infinite
Let’s assume that we bask in His glow
Let’s assume he’s beyond our perception…
Then tell me… just how do we know?

Let’s assume God keeps holding back earthquakes
Let’s assume He is calming the storm
Let’s assume that without Him, the devil
Can cause one, then another, to form
Let’s assume we would all die of cancer
Were it not for God keeping us well
Let’s assume we’d be worse off without Him
Now, tell me… just how can we tell?

Let’s assume God is here, all around us
Let’s assume He’s an infinite force
Let’s assume there is nowhere without Him
Let’s assume as a matter of course.
Let’s assume He’s in each observation
There’s no place without Him, to compare
Tell me, how could a human discern this
From a God who is simply not there?

Musing just a bit, after the jump:

I guess I’m agnostic as well as atheist. I get into these arguments discussions with people, and I really have no problem whatsoever when they say “you’re closed-minded; you have to be open to the possibility that God exists!” Ok, let’s assume He does exist. Let’s go there.

How could you possibly know?

I mean this two ways, actually–the first is in the verse above: if God is everywhere, He’s a constant, and we have no “no God” condition to compare to. The human sensory and perceptual systems, and our technological refinements on them, allow us to detect change, or the presence vs absence of a thing. But in order to know that our detection works, we actually have to have a comparison to make–if a smoke detector works, it discriminates between the presence and absence of smoke; if a god detector works, it discriminates between the presence and absence of a god. If God is omnipresent, He is undetectable. We can’t know if things would be better or worse without Him, cos he’s everywhere all the time (not all gods have this problem, of course).

The second meaning is, we’ve positively defined the characteristics of God to be beyond our ability to know. We can’t know He’s omniscient; we can only know he knows everything we know. If He knows more, we can’t know that; it’s beyond our ability to discern. If He’s omnipotent, we can’t know; we can only know He’s really really powerful. If He can do anything at all, except tie a knot in a shoelace that won’t come undone as soon as He leaves His house, we can’t know that unless we witness it… and there are an infinite number of things we might not be there to witness. Again, we simply cannot know.

Revelatory knowledge, of course, is useless; there are any number of institutionalized individuals who claim special revealed knowledge. How can we be certain one (which one?) of them doesn’t have The Truth? Our human limitations mean that we cannot know if God exists.

And this is when we start off by assuming He does. We can, of course, start off by assuming that no god exists–recognizing that it is an assumption–and we will find no reason to reject that assumption, either. We could find reasons to believe in a god, as Dennett and others have written, in our culture, and in our early attempts at explaining the world around us. There is no need to posit an actual god, in order to end up with a population of believers.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    The Lorax

    Excellent point, and well-argued. Indeed, how can we know X vs Y if all we are positing to exist is X or Y? One must have something to compare.

    I suppose the counter-argument is that “God ISN’T there all the time, he only has the ability to be.” I suppose there is ‘proof’ of this in the bible, where god doesn’t know that Adam and Eve are snacking on forbidden apples. So, God can check up on us if he wants to, but he usually doesn’t. Probably because he loves us and trusts us, or some shit like that.

    I think this is why Laplace said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Yes, because we cannot detect a god, nor can we detect a lack of a god, we cannot say that there is or isn’t with any amount of certainty; a truly agnostic position. However, we CAN say that we do not NEED to detect a god in order to understand the nature of the universe. We are not there yet, but we have come very, very far without needing a skydaddy to help us.

    Two special effects artists from California were able to “walk on water”, using multiple techniques. Scientists can take a cell from a fish muscle, culture it, and produce marketable meat to feed any number of people. Doctors can literally bring people back from the “dead”, given specific circumstances. Who the fuck needs miracles? Who the fuck needs god? Who the fuck needs that hypothesis?

  2. 2
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    >I suppose there is ‘proof’ of this in the bible, where god doesn’t know that Adam and Eve are snacking on forbidden apples. So, God can check up on us if he wants to, but he usually doesn’t.<


    -But that doesn’t square with omniscience. IF god exists and IF he is all knowing, how does he not know Adam and Eve were eating the fruit? How did he not know they were going to before he created them? Why was he searching for Adam?

    Tony

  3. 3
    BKsea

    I think this kind of thinking can be explored on many levels. Suppose we accept that the events of the Bible are true. That would suggest that life is a test and those who pass the test get into heaven. But, what constitutes passing the test? It could be that passing the test means rejecting the Bible. Perhaps God wants to reward people who can apply logic, empathy, and fairness to recognize the contradictions, evil, and unfairness of the Biblical stories. That would at least make more sense than to think that he came up with this arbitrary and changing code of conduct and only told it to a few people in a remote corner of the world.

    But, we don’t know because we can never know who passed the test. Without ever knowing the outcome, claims about how to pass the test are as ridiculous as asking whether or not god exists.

  4. 4
    Rich

    I think this is a poorly-reasoned article. God can be everywhere and still be detectable and discernible. 3D space is everywhere and yet it’s observable.

    Second, you argue that we cannot know if God is omniscient, but I’d say that would be pretty easy for him to demonstrate if he wished, at least beyond a reasonable doubt, by accurately and unfailingly answering any question put to him.

    There are many reasons to disbelieve in God. Here’s one: there is just no evidence that God exists which can be duplicated without first believing the assertion. Opposing beliefs seems to cause opposing observations, leading one to conclude that the entire theory of God is made up and exists only in one’s head. Every objective test to detect God has failed. Many previous claims about God have been shown to be incorrect. The lack of evidence is consistent with his nonexistence, and all claims to his existence are applicable to invisible flying teapots as well. Etc. We don’t need no new-fangled reasons to doubt. Simple common sense does the trick for me. :-)

  5. 5
    Cuttlefish

    Rich, demonstrating that an entity is “as smart or smarter than we are” is hell and gone from demonstrating omniscience. It wouldn’t take a god; probably wouldn’t take a demigod. As for 3D space, did you miss where I said we detect “change”? That is the great thing about 3D space; it’s nearer, further, and we observe change in both time and space. If, instead of what we see as the intricate panorama of 3D space, we saw a ganzfeld, this would be (and in some experimental situations, is) sensory deprivation!

    Of course, your point that “there is no evidence…which can be duplicated without first believing the assertion” is precisely correct, but for people who do first believe the assertion don’t care. The point of my argument is, we know enough about our own limitations to know that we could spot them the assumption of god’s existence, and we still would be unable to know it for certain.

  6. 6
    machintelligence

    This applies, I think, only to the deist god. If you make the claim for a theist god that interacts with the universe, (answers prayers, for example), then those claims are empirically testable. All attempts to show such interactions that have been done in a scientific manner have yielded negative results.

  7. 7
    Cuttlefish

    Testable claims, machineintelligence, until you offer to test them, at which point god is not your monkey. God works in mysterious ways, is beyond our understanding, and besides the whole point is that the universe itself, and life itself, is proof that god is all around us anyway so shut up!

  8. 8
    Robert Test

    This is a curious posting. Like you, I am an atheist as well. But I find your arguments utterly unconvincing.

    You claim that knowledge of the existence of God is impossible. This is an awfully strong claim to make.
    Even if God exists we could not know that he exists. Even if God is omniscient he could not figure out a way to make his existence known to us. Wow!

    You say that human perception allows us to detect the presence of things but human perception cannot detect things that are always present.

    This strikes me as being a strange claim. There are things that that have existed throughout my entire existence. I can still detect them. For example, North America has existed throughout my entire existence, but I have no difficulty in perceiving its existence. As long as I can perceive changes here and there among various things, I am warranted in believing that my perceptual abilities are functioning properly.

    Further, I don’t have any particular difficulty in detecting the presence or absence of people in general. God, if he exists, is a person. I suspect I could detect him as a person. He stands before me, talks intelligently to me – he’s a person. This person exists. Now, would I immediately conclude that he is God or a god. Probably not but I am still perceiving God.
    For all I know Elvis is still alive and I’ve seen him at the mall. I didn’t recognize him as Elvis but I still had no difficulty in perceiving him there and no difficulty in recognizing that he is a human person.

    You seem to think that perceiving God as God is impossible because of the definition of the various characteristics of God. I haven’t read any of your previous posts so I may have to look into this. In general I am very skeptical of a priori arguments based on definitions. Philosophers have tended to think they can prove all sorts of things. They have generally failed.

    You seem to think that knowledge requires absolute proof. I can’t know that God is omniscient because I am not omniscient. This strikes me as absurd.

    I know that the number series “1, 2, 3, …” is an infinite series. I am not infinite but I still know that it is an infinite series.

    Why must I have the property x in order to recognize that property in something or somebody else. All I require is sufficient understanding or evidence to conclude that x has that property.

    Suppose I perceive a book on the table. Maybe it’s really a hologram. I check for projection equipment. I bring in some physicists who know something about holography. They assure me it’s a real book and not a hologram. I tap on it, I pick it up, I read it. By this point I have fairly comfortable in believing it really is a book. But maybe this is all a dream.

    There is no proof. But I can still be comfortable in believing that it is a book and that I know it is a book. I am a fallible being. It does not follow from that, that knowledge is impossible.

    So what sort of tests could I put to God to assure myself he is omniscient? First I bring in panels of experts in various fields of physics, chemistry, biology etc, and have them pose questions.

    After extensive examination we find that the person presenting himself as God not only knows everything that is known but it capable of extending our knowledge in significant ways.

    Then I could proceed to asking questions about things that no one could possibly know the answer to unless they had inside information.

    I’d have him write down his answers to various questions.

    What will be the next card I pull randomly out of a deck of cards? How many grains of sand will be in the pile of sand I will pour on the table?

    I’ll open a randomly chosen book from my book case and read a sentence from a randomly chosen line on a randomly chosen page. What will that line be?

    After a few hundred correct answers to questions such as these I believe I would be perfectly warranted in concluding that God indeed probably does know everything.

    Obviously I could be mistaken — he might be somehow controlling which card I pull out or controlling how many grains of sand are poured out or controlling which sentence I read.

    I suspect that various techniques could be devised to get around this.

    Our conclusion that God is omniscient would be based on empirical evidence. You seem to be relying on a notion that empirical evidence would never be a sufficient basis for concluding that someone is omniscient.

    I think you have an unrealistic notion of the nature of knowledge.

  9. 9
    Cuttlefish

    Robert Test—

    I think it strange that, in order to give counter-examples to my argument, you give examples that illustrate it. North America, for instance, is not always present. Indeed, I can stand on it, and still look in a particular direction (up) and not see it. I have been off of it. I have seen its shores—east, west, south, and even north (if you count Hudson’s Bay). I’ve seen images of it from space, and images of earth from the other side, where North America is not visible. North America is most certainly not “always present” in the sense that God is supposed to be.

    (Parenthetically, it occurs to me that I may be arguing a point that many of you have never had to face. If it seems like I am arguing strangely, perhaps it is the fault of my particular history, and the people who have tried to point god out to me.)

    Robert, you say “God, if he exists, is a person”. Would that were so, my argument would indeed be foolish. Of course you can detect the presence or absence of a person, as can I. People, again, vary in time and space. Thank you, once again, for illustrating my point. People are easy to see. Think instead of how long it took us to discover oxygen, which was all around us. Think of the difficulty in demonstrating the Higgs Field, which is allegedly all around everything, everywhere, including in a perfect vacuum. Now think of something that allegedly would be even hiding within the Higgs Field… and yet knowable to early iron age mystics.

    And you quibble with the definitions of god; you may certainly do so. I did not choose them. If the definition of god included the descriptor “really really incredibly smart”, then your test is fine. It isn’t, though; we are told (or perhaps I am told, since you appear to have no problem with your test) that God (capital G) is omniscient. Suppose (again, we’ll grant the existence of an omniscient God for purposes of argument) we have this God, and we also have a half a dozen Demons (capital D), who are not omniscient, but who each are deficient in their knowledge by precisely one thing. Your procedure, unless it hits upon that one thing (and just how many things are there to know?), would not be able to discern the God from the Demons. Perhaps God knows the name of the newborn hexapod baby on Perseid-IV (“Bill”), and the Demon does not (he lies, and says the hex-kid is named “Bob”). While it is true that God is omniscient, this is a truth that you cannot verify; the Demon is every bit as omniscient to you. Again, “omniscience” is not my sticking point; it’s a definitional characteristic of (capital G) God.

    And yes, you could, through empirical evidence, get close enough that you could reasonably tell yourself “this is God, or at least a god, or a Demon, or something beyond a mere human” (I write about that here– http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/12/15/proof-of-god/ ), but out-and-out omniscience is a sticking point for the people I have argued with. (It comes down to someone’s logical proof; god has to be perfect, which requires omniscience. Oddly enough, it also requires existence—something that exists only logically is not as perfect as something that exists in actuality—therefore, god exists. Hey, it’s not my argument.) So yes, I quibble over omniscience.

  10. 10
    Die Anyway

    Mr. Test may not like your arguments but I think that you have rendered them nicely. As I am often pointing out, about half the people are below average in intelligence. The majority of them do not grasp the subtleties of these topics. When they say that they “know that God exists”, they are really under the impression that they know it. The distinction between knowing and wishful thinking/assumption/feeling is lost on them.

    I’m not sure where this attribute of omniscience came from anyway. It’s obvious from reading the old testament that there are many times when God is surprised to find out about things or is said not to have known about various activities until after the fact. God (supposedly) made Adam and then made Eve after he realized that Adam needed a partner. If God were omniscient he would have known ahead of time. Hmmmm… I wonder if God made Adam with testicles and a prostate gland? If he did, then you’d guess that he had a mate in mind all along. Or maybe he added them after he came up with the idea for Eve. Or maybe it’s just a piece of ancient lore that shouldn’t be taken seriously, along with omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and all that jazz.

  11. 11
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    To me this always goes hand-in-hand with the question ‘which god?’; the fact that there are so many different ones to choose from has always seemed to me to be a massive flaw in any argument presented by a theistic religion.

    Had all societies the world over come up with identical – heck, even strongly similar – cosmologies then it might be a bit more difficult to dismiss. But, as it is, if we assume that a) god exists, and b) he is of the theistic rather than deistic persuasion, which amongst the thousands upon thousands of religions, denominations, sects etc. is the correct one?

    There are, of course, those who say they’re all ‘basically the same thing’ – usually only when arguing with atheists; after all, if they’d always been so magnanimous we wouldn’t have the expression ‘sectarian violence’ – but that’s yet another assertion made without anything objective to support it, with the consequences of being wrong more than a little severe (if some of them are to be believed).

    I’m an indecisive person – if I woke up one day and believed I believed in a god I’d be screwed; I’d never be able to make up my mind!

  12. 12
    Robert Test

    Cuttlefish – I think you make some excellent points – my reply was written too quickly and without much thought – but you still fail to establish your conclusion.

    I don’t have time to provide a review of all your comments so I’ll boil this down to the most basic one. I think you make a very basic logical error. But I don’t think this error is very interesting. The other points you make about omnipresence and perfection of existence are much more interesting much more difficult to pursue. I’ll try to find time to this tomorrow.

    I disagree with them all but still agree that God doesn’t exist.

    Your basic claim is “if God is omnipresent, he is undetectable.”

    When you introduce the possible existence of demons you undermine this claim. If fact, your (I emphasize the personal pronoun here – the mere positing of demons doesn’t undermine your claim) positing of demons contradicts your basic claim.

    But first, let’s get clear what you must provide if you are to show us that, if God is omnipresent he is undetectable.

    What is the modal import of the term ‘undetectable’? Clearly you are claiming that it is impossible to detect God if he is omnipresent. But what is the modal term here? There simply are no generic modal terms so you must tell us exactly what sort of modal term this is.

    Would God be violating some basic law of physics if he is omnipresent? Beats me, I can’t cite any such law. I suspect you mean that it would entail a contradiction to claim that God is omnipresent and detectable by human cognition.

    But you haven’t shown us the contraction. Or, maybe I missed it. If so, please lay it out in a more formal fashion.

    Back to the demons. You seem to posit their existence. Fair enough. If we can posit the existence of God we can certainly posit the existence of super smart nearly perfect demons who know every true proposition minus one of two.

    How does it undermine your basic claim? It makes your claim ambiguous.
    At first you claim that God is undetectable. This is simple and absolutely unambiguous assuming we agree that the modal term refers to logical impossibility.

    But in positing demons you back off the simple logical analysis and provide a more squishy epistemological argument, namely, that we can merely never be absolutely certain that we are detecting God and not one of these demons.

    These squishy (pardon the expression) epistemological arguments seem to be all that you have. My point is that you need more than epistemological arguments to establish your conclusion.

    If we can’t be sure we are detecting God or a demon it follows that we are capable of detecting demons and God.

    It follows from this that we are capable of detecting God.

    If we might be detecting God, it follows that it is not logically impossible to detect God. The consequence of this is that your basic claim is defeated.

  13. 13
    Robert Test

    I haven’t thought about issues of epistemology and metaphysics of God in years so forgive me for taking a few days to wake up my brain.

    I think the solution to the problem you’re having came to me when I woke up this morning.

    The solution: using possible world semantics.
    Your basic claim is “if God is omnipresent, he is undetectable.”

    This can be stated in possible world semantics as: “There is no possible world in which we detect an omnipresent God.”

    I suspect you may have actually misstated your basic claim. You don’t mean to make a generalized claim that an omnipresent God is undetectable in every possible world but only undetectable in the actual world and those worlds very similar to the actual world.

    I believe the more generalized statement of your claim is false. I believe the contradictory of this claim, viz., ‘that there is a possible world in which we detect an omnipresent God’ Is true.

    I’ll ask you to stretch your imagination and work with me on this concept of a possible worlds.

    Take a simple one: imagine a possible world in which only one object exists.

    Imagine another possible world in which only two objects exist.

    Neither of these sentences contain or entail a contradiction hence both of these worlds are possible worlds.

    Imagine a possible world exactly like the actual world except (an omnipresent) God exists. This is your idea of positing the existence of God.

    Now imagine a possible world, close or similar to the actual world, except (an omnipresent) God exists and no demons exist.

    (This is where you get into trouble. You seem to think that if God exists demons exist as well.)

    Can you imagine the possibility that God exists and there are no demons? Maybe I’m missing something here and this is actually impossible.

    Now imagine a possible world close to the actual world in which God, an immaterial infinite omnipresent being, can causally interact with material objects causing them to change in systematic ways. In this possible world, God can talk or communicate to us. Let’s say that in this possible world there is not any evil: no demons, no unnecessary suffering and premature death.

    I probably have to get more specific about some of the details of this possible world but I think you grasp the outline.

    I might have missed your point – when you posit the existence of God you might be confining your thinking to a very narrow range of possibility and in that very narrow range you find that we would not be able to detect God. I’m not convinced that this approach is reasonable or interesting.

    I took you to be making a much stronger and much more interesting claim. Maybe I was wrong.

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