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Feb 25 2014

Arguing God In The New York Times

We can’t disprove a God, you know,
Cos God can’t be defined.
The God you claim cannot exist
Exists within my mind

My God cannot be fathomed, and
Will never be undone
Each heart perceives Him differently
But God is only One.

We disagree on details, like
His numbers, or His name,
But clearly, all believers know,
Their Gods are all the same

(What’s more, divine diversity
Is clearly heaven-sent:
Whatever God you just disproved
Is not the one I meant!)

A Godly game of whack-a-mole;
Forever un-disproved;
Each time you bring the hammer down
Too late! Cos God just moved!

A question, though, occurs to me—
I find it rather odd—
Why label this cacophony
“A shared belief in God”?

Ah. The horrendous interview with Plantinga was only the first in a series. Gary Gutting’s second interview is with Louise Antony, one of that large majority of philosophers who are atheists. This one was much easier to stomach, although I must say I was not nearly as impressed by Gutting in this interview. I guess he stood out in comparison to Plantinga, but here he seems determined to push Antony into Gutting’s own comfort zone that appears to prefer agnosticism to atheism.

But I do like the way Antony delimits her answers–her atheism is because theism has been proven false to her satisfaction, and she is perfectly comfortable with the notion that someone might disagree. She takes issue with a question about disagreement regarding the existence of God, wondering why that is any more significant a question than the myriad disagreements among theists regarding the characteristics of God (I have often pondered the extent to which different denominations can be said to be in agreement–here, here, and here, for example), which are certainly big enough disagreements to form schisms.

G.G.: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. It seems to me that, at some point of specificity, most people don’t have reasons beyond being comfortable with one community rather than another. I think it’s at least sometimes important for believers to have a sense of what that point is. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

L.A.: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.

In any case though, I don’t see that claiming to know that there is no God requires me to say that no one could have good reasons to believe in God. I don’t think there’s some general answer to the question, “Why do theists believe in God?” I expect that the explanation for theists’ beliefs varies from theist to theist. So I’d have to take things on a case-by-case basis.

The common ground that different religions share, that allows us to say they “share a belief in God”, is nowhere near what defines their different faiths.

Gutting, though, misses the bit where something that defies evidence and still gives rise to people who are absolutely certain about minute details (and who will fight over disagreements about those details), and presses Antony for a certainty that she does not feel the need to deliver:

G.G.: O.K., on your view we don’t have any way to judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments about whether God exists. But the question still remains, why are you so certain that God doesn’t exist?

L.A.: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.

So… yeah. This interview leaves me really liking Antony, really frustrated with Gutting, and all the more convinced that Plantinga can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag.

And the contrast in comments is interesting as well–the comments to the Plantinga interview ran strongly against him, and were frankly more intelligent than the interview. Today’s comments are still coming in, but it looks like evidence of an overall tendency of people to write in more often in complaint and disagreement than in concurrence. My favorite so far makes the argument that Antony can be disproven simply by defining God as “that which we cannot, and never will be able to, fathom”. Or as I have heard it before, “reality beyond the material“. Defining God that way pretty much means that any faith asserting any particular details about God must necessarily be false.

Hey, wait… maybe she’s onto something there.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    This is a first. This is the first time I’ve seen a remotely famous person (mis)use the words “atheist” and “agnostic”. Louise implied that agnostics are undecided about existence of gods, and atheists have decided that there are no gods. I see this strawman used many, many times by the religious – and it still is a strawman – but now I have some semi-famous self-identified atheist using these definitions of terms, which is quite irritating. Now, I have to weaken “I’ve never seen” to: Almost all famous published self-identified atheists of the last 300 years – 100 years before Huxley coined the term “agnostic” – have been consistent that atheism contains both positions that there are no gods, and “I don’t know”.

    Irritating.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    But at one point she absolutely uses “agnostic” properly, in the older sense of the word, to identify those who don’t think god’s existence can be known. She thinks it can, and that it is false–that is, she would be classified as a gnostic atheist. She believes the question can be solidly answered (thus, not agnostic), and as such is convinced that there is no god (atheist).

    I’ll have to take another read through it–I am usually very sensitive to the misuse of those terms, myself, and I didn’t get the feeling you did!

  3. 3
    Al Dente

    This interview leaves me really liking Antony, really frustrated with Gutting

    I agree with you, especially since Gutting was trying to get Anthony to admit that maybe God (the Christian god most likely) could exist and she wasn’t playing his game.

    and all the more convinced that Plantinga can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag.

    I knew that some years ago when I read Plantinga’s attempt to refute naturalism by sneering at a strawman idea of evolution.

  4. 4
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    Reading it again, I think I’m wrong. I was focusing on:

    Gary Gutting: You’ve taken a strong stand as an atheist, so you obviously don’t think there are any good reasons to believe in God.
    [...]
    Louise Antony: I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I’ve taken a “strong stand as an atheist.” I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.

    G.G.: That is what I mean.

    I guess it’s consistent both ways. I retract what I said earlier.

    So, she doesn’t obviously misuse the word “atheist”.

    I think I was led on by this as well: As an entirely separate point, she does hold the belief that there are no gods. That is also quite rare. I think I let my judgment become colored because of that.

    I like how the questioner effectively asks “even deist gods”? She dodges the question by saying (correctly) that even one could show a first-cause god, that gets you no closer to the gods of common religions.

    I agree that all of the commonly worshiped gods do not exist, for example just like Dawkins in The God Delusion, but I think the question of a first-cause deist god is either (currently) unknown or malformed, again just like Dawkins in The God Delusion. I think in this very small corner case it is unjustified to say that there is no such thing as a first-cause non-interfering god. At best, you can say that we have no need of that hypothesis, and that it’s existence is indistinguishable from its nonexistence.

    Meh.

  5. 5
    Cuttlefish

    The thing is, the deist god (the one indistinguishable from its nonexistence), if it is utterly unevidenced, is clearly *not* the Abrahamic God, nor the god or gods of any other organized religion.

    It’s as if the desire to prove a god is so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter that the argument kills all the world’s religions. No wonder they make a virtue of faith.

  6. 6
    brucegee1962

    It seems to me that the most likely hypothesis is that all the theories about gods area all wrong, and there aren’t any. But the second most likely seems to me what I call the “Neil Gaiman” hypothesis — that all the theories about all the gods are RIGHT, and that, at least up until recently, there were many, many godlike beings that all decided to leave for some reason. Or call it the “Who Mourns for Adonis” hypothesis. After all, the evidence for all of them is about of equal quality.

    The hypothesis that just one theory is right and all the others are wrong comes way farther down.

  7. 7
    richardelguru

    “Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project”

    And they were grading on a curve

  8. 8
    Cuttlefish

    He was trying to impress the older, cooler gods:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2008/09/11/the-big-bang-or-smush-maybe/

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