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Jan 15 2014

The Eternally Receding God

Damon Linker has a profoundly ridiculous book review in The Week of The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by theologian David Bentley Hart. The book, he says, “exposes a major fallacy in atheist thinking.” No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.

One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.

Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)

The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.

But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.

Scientists are heroically proficient at detecting the laws that govern the natural world. They interrogate phenomena, trace effects back to their contingent causes, and then those causes back to even prior causes, developing and testing theories that seek to explain the temporal sequence. In the case of cosmology, that sequence extends all the way back to origins of the universe — to the first contingent cause of every subsequent cause over the past 13.82 billion years or so.

God concerns something else entirely. He is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.

On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

This is just a classic god-of-the-gaps argument. At all times, God is always one step back from whatever science can currently explain, the eternally receding deity. This god is very elusive, indeed, always immune to the need to actually provide evidence for its own existence.

58 comments

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  1. 1
    Alverant

    And the same argument was used centuries ago. Whenever science explains something the apologists just have God take a step back to stay in the shadows.

  2. 2
    Matt G

    Whether atheism is correct has nothing to do with whether a secular society can “get along just fine”. Appeal to Consequences. Do they not understand logical fallacies, or do they just not care?

  3. 3
    cjcolucci

    Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist.

    You can always make some kind of religion refutation-proof, and I suppose this does it, but how many actual believers would sign on for a religion in which their deity isn’t something that “exists” at all?

  4. 4
    doublereed

    1. God is falsifiable, therefore science Non-Overlapping Magisteria doesn’t work and God fails to have enough evidence to be compelling.

    2. God is not falsifiable, therefore who the hell cares because the notion is completely pointless and doesn’t affect anything that anybody does.

    Christians just dance between that line. Dance, baby, dance!

  5. 5
    Modusoperandi

    You Athiests think God is big, but the Truth is that, as the very foundation of the universe and reality itself, God is so big that He isn’t here at all. Take that, Athiesm!

  6. 6
    sigurd jorsalfar

    Perhaps we should call him “The Incredible Shrinking Deity”?

    This is really just the apophatic argument: The atheist mistake is to treat god as non-existent, when sophisticated theists know that god is profoundly non-existent.

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy

    The other way of looking at it is that the faithful have been working for thousands of years to proffer those “strongest cases for god” and the best they’ve ever come up with is argument from ignorance, and an old book. That these arguments have not changed substantially or improved significantly over thousands of years is the problem – because our understanding of the world around us has improved and the ancient arguments for gods remain giggle-worthy.

  8. 8
    cswella

    The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps).

    The first of these shared claims is that FSM transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative christians treat FSM as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a God, perhaps).

    Thus showing they missed the point of the FSM entirely.

  9. 9
    Sastra

    What Linker fails to understand is that even something which is supposed to “transcend” the universe is still subject to objective scrutiny and requirements for consistency if it is to be knowable at all. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t protect God from rational analysis and then give ‘good’ reasons for people to believe in God.

    This is a fact claim:

    (E)very pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty.

    It can be broken apart and attacked both philosophically and scientifically. Why? Because it could be wrong. An alternative could be right. It’s not self-evident or basic, sensus divinitatis be damned. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are not automatically known to be essences with agency.

    Saying that something is “transcendent” (or “metaphysical”) is not some magic Get-Out-of-Reasoning-Free Card unless it’s admitted up front that there is no way for anyone to tell and the truth or falsehood makes no possible difference to anyone or anything. Which is not what they’re doing when it comes to “God” or any other supernatural claim, is it?

    It gets very tiresome. Even the fundamentalists deny that they believe in “an Old Man in the Sky With a Beard” and yet again and again the New Atheists are accused of attacking “an Old Man in the Sky With a Beard.” The term “anthropomorphic” isn’t limited to the human body. Something is also anthropomorphic if it takes on the shape of the human mind — including the highest ideals, emotions, concepts, goals, and experiences of the human mind.

    Even the most vague, sophisticated God resembles such aspects of the human mind. That’s why they argue that the causation is required to go the other way. They make a case. This is what atheists argue against.

    And yet, here we go again — you’re so SILLY to use science because God is transcendent and gosh, atheists think God is an Old Man in the Sky With a Beard. But God is really the Condition of the Possibility of Anything Existing at All — and THIS must be mind-like in order to explain our minds and ideals.

  10. 10
    Chiroptera

    The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps).

    That’s because atheists don’t argue against the Deist’s transcental god. They argue against the imminent god that all theists think actually interacts with the material world on a regular basis. Interactions with the material world implies that there should be a signal that can be detected. If there isn’t and all phenonema can be explained by statistical variations of the workings of the natural laws as we discover them, then the god hypothesis doesn’t add anything to our understanding and the theists have to explain why Occam’s razor isn’t a reasonable tool to use in this case.

  11. 11
    Gretchen

    But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world.

    …..no they don’t. By and large, they treat God as a person. A really powerful person. As if God is a being who at least sometimes, in some ways, takes part in the physical universe to make things happen. Quite often actually they go well beyond this and treat God as if God him (yes, him) self is actually constrained by the universe, bound by the physical laws that he supposedly created.

    And more to the point, that’s what religious people– adherents of the major world religions– do.

    Misters Linker and Hart even less familiar with how religion works than they accuse atheists of being, which quite frankly is not hard to do. It is, however, rather stunning how often this particular form of hypocrisy gets trumpeted as some kind of refutation. No, it doesn’t prove atheists are wrong. It proves you know even less about what you believe than atheists know about what you believe, but lack the humility to recognize it.

  12. 12
    otrame

    You know, as a fairly rabid atheist, I could get along with this “profoundly nonexistent” god so beloved of the sophisticated theologist. That god doesn’t effect reality at all, at least not once he/she/it created everything, so he/she/it is welcome to get on with whatever he/se/it does and I’ll get on with being a human being.

    But that god is not who most people worship. The god that most people worship is not some amorphous blob of Creator who doesn’t care much how he/she/it is worshiped and is tolerant of whatever people come up with in the way worship and rules of behavior and so forth. That terribly sophisticated god is well thought of only in some very rarefied atmospheres. Down where the rubber meets the road, people want a god that tells them they are right and everyone else is wrong, that they are righteous and everyone else is hellbound. That nebulous “all religions are sorta true” god isn’t very satisfying to most believers.

    Probably because there isn’t enough blood.

  13. 13
    doublereed

    In fact, I just did this with a colleague of mine. He gave me the Deist God and then I asked him what the bloody point of that God is. It’s making a statement which has no predictive power or bearing on any sort of reality. It seems completely useless and doesn’t affect anything.

    So he then talked about how it could be used to justify ideas in the bible, so I had to point out that, well, no it couldn’t. The Deist God can’t give you the bible, because the Deist God doesn’t affect things. He clearly hadn’t considered that.

  14. 14
    otrame

    Sastra, have I mentioned recently how much I admire your writing?

  15. 15
    Reginald Selkirk

    Stand back! I’ve got Occam’s razor and I know how to use it.

  16. 16
    Reginald Selkirk

    MattG #2: Whether atheism is correct has nothing to do with whether a secular society can “get along just fine”.

    I suppose this is his attempt to say he is not one of those endarkened individuals who think that morality is impossible without God.

  17. 17
    fmitchell

    “They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world.”

    Which apparently gets very upset about what creatures on a small dense rock near an average star do with their genitals.

    Said transcendent source was allegedly embodied for a time as one of those creatures, slain, and came back to life according to the testimony of a couple of dozen people. This Ground of All Being will condemn those creatures to a posthumous life of infinite pain for not accepting him as their Lord and Savior.

    Other thoroughly unimpeachable sources say that the entity who encompasses and exceeds the natural world dictated a book to an illiterate Arab whom mankind must never ever draw, told some folks in the Punjab to never cut their hair, and guided a Vermont native to inscribed golden plates only he saw and only he could translate (but never more than once).

    Could somebody remind me what “transcendent” means again?

  18. 18
    Chiroptera

    God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    What the hell does this even mean?

  19. 19
    fmitchell

    Argh, tag fail. Sorry.

  20. 20
    stripeycat

    I think this may be where a lot of agnosticism comes from: if God does nothing, you can’t disprove him. I know I was susceptible to this line of argument as a child. However, my mature response is “Russell’s Teapot”.

  21. 21
    JJ831

    God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    Wow. That’s some sophisticated theology right there. I keep repeating that line in my head. It really means absolutely nothing. So God is nothing more than the fact that there is a possibility of existence?

    I keep trying to get something outside of “Since things exist, God”. Which again, tells us nothing about the nature of this “God”, and in no way implies a supernatural being of any sort. God is just another term for the current state of the Universe.

  22. 22
    CJO

    Could somebody remind me what “transcendent” means again?

    It’s synonymous with “imaginary”.

  23. 23
    Reginald Selkirk

    The Edge asks: 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

    Most of the respondents are brainy scientists or writers, and there’s some good stuff there.

    And then there’s <a href="Douglas Rushkoff – Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Present Shock:

    The Atheism Prerequisite

    We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose. Whether this directionality is a genuine, pre-existing condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction, has yet to be determined. At the very least, this means our experience and expectations of life can no longer be dismissed as impediments to proper observation and analysis.

    But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the singularity, and robot consciousness—a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of Biblical prophecy.

    It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

    By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

    Science’s unearned commitment to materialism” – I think 500 years of steadily growing evidence is “earned.”

    It’s entirely more rational … to work with the possibility that … consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.” No it’s not. Consciousness, while poorly defined, has never been demonstrated without a physical embodiment.

    By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning…” – again, it is not a foundational principle, but a reasonable conclusion to be drawn after half a millenium of scientific inquiry.

    … we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.” – No we don’t. Those sentiments are commonplace in humanity. We had to work had to overcome those biases. They were investigated and found to be unproductive. The focus on “human consciousness” is also narcistically anthropocentric.

  24. 24
    kenbakermn

    Even if you grant everything in that quoted paragraph, you’re still a long, long way from demonstrating that the entity you’re describing is the god of the Christian bible, or any other religious text.

  25. 25
    Reginald Selkirk

    It seems everyone wants a share of Teh Dumn.
    At the Grauniad, it’s Oliver Burkeman:
    The one theology book all atheists really should read

    What if most modern arguments against religious belief have been attacking the wrong God all along?

    My modest New Year’s wish for 2014, then, is that atheists who care about honest argument – and about maybe actually getting somewhere in these otherwise mind-numbingly circular debates – might consider reading just one book by a theologian, David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, published recently by Yale University Press.

    In a post at The Week, Damon Linker sums up this second version better than I can:…

    He’s less articulate than Damon Linker! I know you’ll all want to rush over there and read it now.

  26. 26
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    My position: First, tell me what your god is and how I could distinguish it from some really powerful, technologically advanced alien life form or any other natural phenomenon, and then we’ll talk about whether I believe in him.

    Until you define what god is, the whole concept is a cosmic divide-by-0 error–it can give you any result you want.

  27. 27
    Reginald Selkirk

    So – what grounded the ground of all being?

  28. 28
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    This is just a classic god-of-the-gaps argument. At all times, God is always one step back from whatever science can currently explain, the eternally receding deity. This god is very elusive, indeed, always immune to the need to actually provide evidence for its own existence.

    No. The argument in the quote in the OP is fundamentally dishonest. No one believes in that kind of god. They believe in the kind of god which did observable miracles for some humans in the past, such as Jesus’s resurrection. No one believes in an unknowable god.

    It’s a gigantic bait and switch. They’ll prance out this god which no one believes in to refute the assertions of atheists, and then they’ll go right to Jesus or whatever god they actually believe in.

  29. 29
    scienceavenger

    (E)very pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived.

    No. It. Doesn’t. Plato died long ago, and so did this intellectual masturbation pretending to be reasoning.

  30. 30
    sigurd jorsalfar

    They’ll prance out this god which no one believes in to refute the assertions of atheists, and then they’ll go right to Jesus or whatever god they actually believe in.

    I think you are correct, EL. Notice how Linker’s article and the Grauniad piece linked to in a comment above are specifically addressed to atheists. They want atheists to read these arguments and be stumped. Theists need not bother, so they can stay focused on the more important business of believing in a personal, interactive god who seems to them to be frighteningly real.

  31. 31
    eric

    The other way of looking at it is that the faithful have been working for thousands of years to proffer those “strongest cases for god” and the best they’ve ever come up with is argument from ignorance, and an old book.

    IMO most mentions of “haven’t considered the strongest case” means you’re dealing with one of two types of theist, both of which are somewhat dishonest:
    1 – the type who will keep bringing up new strongest cases every time you address one, in an infinite series. IOW, someone who just uses “strongest case” language to taunt you into following his gish gallup along. If someone says you haven’t considered the strongest case yet, be prepared for turtles all the way down.
    2 – the type who has a pet argument for the existence of God, is peeved nobody else thinks its as good as he/she thinks it is, and has decided to do some narcissistic self-advertising of their pet idea by calling it “greatest case.” In this case, be prepared to be underwhelmed – what you have here is self-publication of an idea that nobody else touched because it wasn’t worth touching.

    I say “most” because there is always the possibility that you get the utterly naive theist who honestly thinks you aren’t familiar with the Ontological argument or Pascal’s wager or what have you. If that person is a teen or maybe freshman in college, i’d cut them a break. But if they’re over, say, 25, I’d bet on it being #1 or #2 above.

  32. 32
    Nick Gotts

    They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — differenceload of twaddle.

    FTFThem

    Reginald Selkirk:

    So – what grounded the ground of all being?

    Theologian:

    It grounds itself.

    Reginald Selkirk*

    So why can’t ordinary being ground itself?

    Theologian:

    You’re just a meany! I’m not playing with you any more!

    *Excuse me putting words into your mouth!

  33. 33
    Artor

    This is why I am not an agnostic. While I freely admit that there are more things in heaven & Earth than my philosophy has dreamt of, we have actually figured out some specific things about the Universe. Either we are wrong, and some ultra-powerful, yet somehow completely undetectable being has been fucking with us, or “God” is such a vaguely-defined being that nobody would recognize it as God. Sure, maybe in an alternate reality, a being exists that terrestrial theists would call “God,” but it appears that no such creature exists in this universe.

  34. 34
    ArtK

    @ Marcus Ranum

    until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy

    The other way of looking at it is that the faithful have been working for thousands of years to proffer those “strongest cases for god” and the best they’ve ever come up with is argument from ignorance, and an old book. That these arguments have not changed substantially or improved significantly over thousands of years is the problem – because our understanding of the world around us has improved and the ancient arguments for gods remain giggle-worthy.

    The atheist’s logic goes this way: I have seen all of the “strongest cases” for God and the evidence that the natural world is the product of natural processes, therefore God does not exist (or is useless, or probably doesn’t exist, etc.)

    The faithful logic goes like this: God exists; the atheist doesn’t believe in God therefore the atheist hasn’t heard the strongest cases for God.

    You hear this in politics, too, especially (but not exclusively) from the Right: “My opponent disagrees with me, therefore they are either misinformed or a raving fanatic.” The idea that someone could look at the same evidence and come up with a different answer (especially without being a raving fanatic) is incomprehensible. Or perhaps “inconceivable” would be a better term.

  35. 35
    dukeofomnium

    God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    If they’re going to toss a word salad, they should at least supply the ranch dressing.

  36. 36
    Al Dente

    The god that most Christians believe in isn’t some nebulous, deist entity who created the universe and then faded into the background. Most Christians believe in a god with a white beard who answers prayers (except, for some reason, from amputees), helps people find their car keys, and is obsessed with people’s sex lives.

    Hart’s god doesn’t do anything, doesn’t manifest itself, and is nothing more than a vague suggestion. It’s essentially identical to no god at all. As an atheist, I don’t care about Hart’s god because it effectively doesn’t exist. I do care about the white-bearded geezer because he’s used to support all kinds of anti-humanist socio-political positions.

  37. 37
    freehand

    I dunno; I think Hart has pretty convincingly argued that atheists have no reason to believe in gods. The lesser ones, he admits, are imaginary, and the greatest of all is entirely unfathomable, non-interactive, disinterested, imperceivable, and amoral.

    Also, the concept is utterly unnecessary in any attempt to understand the world around us – there are no scientific hypotheses or theories which are improved by the addition of ghostly entities.

    The Southern Baptists who raised me certainly believed in an old man with a beard in the sky. He is magical, powerful, sexually obsessed, vindictive, insecure, and capricious. In other words, your typical bronze age Near Eastern tyrant and abusive parent.

    As the light of knowledge continues to grow, the god of the gaps retreats into the shadows, snarling and snapping.

    ************************

    Rushkoff: It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

    In other words, Rushkoff finds it inconceivable that the universe cannot be intuitively grasped by him. It is “more rational”, he says, that the universe be naively explicable to someone who is unwilling or unable to learn the math and physics that allow us to understand it more than we had in the past. “Math is hard”, Barbie says, but she never claimed that it was irrational.

  38. 38
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    I *knew* that clouds dream in purple sleep.

  39. 39
    felidae

    “our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe”

    Something we don’t believe exists we treat as big and powerful–I think the author is blowing smoke out his ass

  40. 40
    Irrational Rationality

    An unfalsifiable god has a probability of existing equal to zero. There is a 100% chance that a truly unfalsifiable even in principle god doesn’t exist. Note that this is not the same as stating that one can be certain such an entity doesn’t exist, because an event with probability zero is not the same as an impossible event. It’s a subtle distinction that requires some understanding of calculus, but nonetheless, it is an important distinction.

    Why do I know such a god has a probability of zero? Consider the space of all possible unfalsifiable states of affairs. This space is infinite. In fact, it’s an infinite cardinality that transcends that of the real numbers. Even subject to some reasonable constraints of what is considered a “possible state,” it’s still absolutely enormous beyond all comprehension. Since everything in the space is an unfalsifiable claim, we have literally no information about any claim within it. Indeed, we can never, even in principle, have any information about any claim within it, because if we could, such a claim would not be unfalsifiable, by definition. As such, we have no rational basis to weigh the probability of any possible point in the space against any other.

    We have a complete lack of information about which point in this space is actually correct, so our information entropy is maximum. The distribution corresponding to globally maximum entropy is always uniform. Every individual point within the space must have equal probability density, at least according to some measure compatible with the space. Any uniform measure on this space is going to assign probability zero to basically any event, unless that event is unbounded in some extreme way. Indeed, the distribution isn’t even likely to be normalizable, so some care must be taken in how you define your limits. Nonetheless, no matter how you do it, pretty much any reasonable subset of this space has a probability of zero for being true, unless it lacks almost all specificity. An unfalsifiable god is not lacking in specificity, so you’re pretty much guaranteed it’s a reasonable subset.

    I can declare with a very high degree of confidence that the probability of an unfalsifiable god existing is 0

    If you want a god that has a non-zero probability to exist, such a god must be falsifiable in principle, if not in practice.

  41. 41
    Pierce R. Butler

    … one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist.

    Thusly David Bentley Hart (or his Week reviewer) refuses St Anselm’s Ontological Argument, which holds as a core premise that existence is superior to non-existence and therefore God, superior to everything, must exist.

  42. 42
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ahem! to my @ 41: Hart (or his feeble reviewer) refutes St Anselm…

  43. 43
    dingojack

    As a certain poster would say*: ‘this doctrine is outside the largest circle of Christian orthodoxy’ [Therefore it's non-Christian, therefore we can ignore it's existence or, if not, NO TRUE SCOTSMAN].

    If god is transcendent in respect to the universe, then this god would be incidental to the universe’s interactions and therefore not a variable in our calculations on how the universe actually works (that is, our understanding of the universe).
    .As others have said before (and far more cogently and elegantly) in this case transcendent is just fancy word for irrelevant.
    Thanks David Bentley Hart for pointing out a strong argument for atheism.
    Dingo
    ——–
    * yes SLC, I’m looking at you. .

  44. 44
    escuerd

    Irrational Rationality @40:

    I’m not sure how obvious it is either that any reasonable definition of “God” is necessarily restrictive enough to make the probability zero. Most proposals about the existence of some specific thing would still correspond to infinite sets of points in the space of possibilities. These sets might well be infinitesimally small compared to its relevant superset (like the volume of a 2-D slice of a 3-D set), but is there a good way to show that that’s true?

    I’m also not really convinced that a statement being unfalsifiable entails that we have zero information about it. Many (if not most) scientific hypotheses that we generally consider falsified could technically be salvaged by introducing some ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses. But the more we have to introduce such hypotheses, the lower the probability of the original proposition becomes, and we generally just judge them to be falsified by the time it gets ridiculous.

    I’m actually interested in your answers for this, and reading your post is making me want to start thinking about the foundations of knowledge again.

    I can declare with a very high degree of confidence that the probability of…

    That’s meta as fuck.

  45. 45
    raven

    That is the philosophers god. The one hiding behind the Big Bang and about to be evicted again for the Multiverse. No one worships him.

    What is is not, is the fundie god. The one they sacrifice their children to.

    The not very bright Sky Monster god. The one who talks to millions of people and tells them different things. The one that was falsified centuries ago and doesn’t exist.

  46. 46
    escuerd

    Damon Linker wrote:

    The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe.

    Er…that’s not even nearly a universally shared claim, of course. Olympian gods come to mind immediately, and all sorts of animism. Oh certainly there are examples of some kind of outside-the-universe creator like that to be found in lots of places, but this isn’t too far off from noting that different mythologies have all attempted to provide pat answers to a lot of the same obvious philosophical questions (e.g. Why there is a universe?). When you cherry pick from religions and look only at the writings of their more philosophically inclined apologists, it’s not surprising you’ll find some similarities.

    The whole “contingent”, “non-contingent” distinction really seems like an arbitrary way to convince themselves that they’re exempt from providing evidence for their claims.

    God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    Almost everyone means something a good deal more specific than that when they refer to “god”, something that includes things like consciousness. It’s not a straw man if that’s what virtually all of the people we are arguing with are asserting.

    I can’t bring myself to care much about “routing” people who believe that there’s some unspecified first cause. Sure, their arguments aren’t really compelling and are full of equivocation and special pleading, but if that was all they were trying to claim, they’d be mostly harmless. But we all know that most of these grandiose douchewankers aren’t content to stick with having quirky views on abstruse philosophical subjects. It’s generally just a way to prop up a more complex (and less sophisticated) mythology that almost always involves cosmic intent and an afterlife, and frequently also involves theurgy and genies and shit. Also no gay sex, or abortions. The first cause has spoken.

    And if you argue against any of that, you’re just arguing against a strawman. That just won’t do. This shit is sophisticated!

  47. 47
    Irrational Rationality

    1. I’m talking mostly about hypotheses which are unfalsifiable even in principle. In practice, almost no hypothesis every seriously entertained by anyone actually fits. Even most hypotheses about god are technically falsifiable. It’s just really difficult to do so. Only a god who literally never intervenes, exists in a place that cannot ever be accessed by any method whatsoever, and whose existence has absolutely no observable effect on any physically possible experiment could be considered unfalsifiable. Even if god can only be met by dying and seeing him in the afterlife, that god is still observable and testable. I’m being hasty. I really mean unfalsifiable and unverifiable. However, I think that I can offer an argument that in order for something to be unfalsifiable in principle, it must be unverifiable in principle. I won’t present this argument here unless you specifically request it due to my already taking up absurd amounts of comment space.

    2. Scientific hypotheses which have already been falsified cannot be salvage by adding new ad hoc auxiliaries. At that point, you’ve got a new hypothesis. The old hypothesis has been falsified. The new hypothesis is not the old one. I’m being very careful about my choice of words here. I think that’s a necessity when discussing delicate issues like this..

    3. Essentially no one actually believes in this unfalsifiable in principle god. No one. Not even WLC or the too abstract to be logically coherent theologians like Karen Armstrong

    4. In practice, what people believe in is the “goalpost god.” This is a god that is very similar to the scientific hypothesis you mentioned in your post. This is not a fixed, well-defined god hypothesis. Rather, it is a hypothesis that invents increasingly baroque excuses or increasingly non-interventionist states of affairs whenever their hypothesis is shown to be inconsistent with observable reality. The fundies tend to invent baroque excuses like c-decay (physically meaningless when you understand that c is just a unit converter), giant ice canopies, and the lunar bukkake theory of Nephlimfree. The “sophisticated theologians” tend to prefer defining god to be more and more abstract. Some go so far as to essentially define “him” out of existence. The problem with these people is not that their gods are unfalsifiable. It’s that their gods have been falsified, so they invent new ones, which also get falsified, ad infinitum. If they were honest about the fact that their models keep getting falsified, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem. The problem I have is that they pretend our modern conceptions of god have even a remote resemblance to their ancestral counterparts.

    5. It’s actually very much like a plane in 3 space. In quantum mechanics, the proper space (called Hilbert space) is infinite dimensional, but it still has nice properties. This space would also be infinite dimensional, but its cardinality would be far beyond Hilbert space, which has the cardinality of the power set of the continuum. Even if we restrict ourselves so we don’t end up considering literally every logically possible unfalsifiable state of affairs (after all, we don’t want to run into problems similar to the set of all sets), it’s still an unimaginably big space with an absurdly huge infinity of dimensions. Without imposing a purposely contrived measure on such a space, it’s all but guaranteed that any set which does not extend in all dimensions of the space has measure zero.

    God may not be overly specific, but such an entity still has a few contingencies, like consciousness, some rather large amount of power, and several other things. Even if we allow this god to not be the only unfalsifiable thing that exists, it is still likely that there are at least some “dimensions” of this space into which the god subspace does not extend. This is, of course, assuming that we can work with transfinite measures in a sensible way. That’s why I say that I have a high degree of certainty that the truly unfalsifiable god has a 0% chance of existing, rather than asserting that I know. Measure theory on anything bigger than separable Hilbert space usually isn’t done.

  48. 48
    DaveL

    But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world.

    Who answers prayers with miracles, has a gender, dictates books, takes interest in people’s sex lives, cares what you believe, demands worship, and judges you after you die. That kind of transcendent source.

  49. 49
    Nick Gotts

    The review (and by the sound of it, the book) are akin to the “Courtier’s Reply”, but this crew are saying that yes, the Emperor is completely naked, and indeed invisible, inaudible and intangible – but that just shows how ineffably transcendent and transcendentally ineffable he is!

  50. 50
    escuerd

    1.

    Only a god who literally never intervenes, exists in a place that cannot ever be accessed by any method whatsoever, and whose existence has absolutely no observable effect on any physically possible experiment could be considered unfalsifiable.

    I guess it seems like there’s still some ambiguity loaded onto the term “falsifiable”. Do we know that there aren’t hypotheses that have effects that would allow us to make probabilistic judgments about their truth without this probability ever being able to reach zero or one? Or is “falsifiable” broad enough that it includes such statements?

    2. Strictly speaking, that’s true. But then, strictly speaking, the hypotheses that anyone cares about are not quite the same as things that are actually being falsified.

    An experiment that purported to falsify the statement “Nothing travels faster than c,” would more likely be falsifying something like “Nothing travels faster than c, and this measuring apparatus is accurate.” Of course, when we had something like this happen at CERN just a couple years ago, most scientists were prudent enough not to immediately jettison relativity based on a single observation. I suppose “Nothing travels faster than c, and this measuring apparatus has a systematic bias,” is technically a new hypothesis, but the hypothesis that “Nothing travels faster than c,” was never falsified, and I can’t currently conceive of any set of observations that would falsify it by such criteria (one could always posit some improbable set of faulty observations or the like).

    In other words, we haven’t falsified H. We’ve falsified [H & ~(A1 & A2 & A3 & ...) | ~(B1 & B2 & ...) | ... ]. As the list of &s grows larger, and that of |s grows smaller, we tend to treat H as falsified and move on with our lives, but if (H & A1 & A2 &…) isn’t falsified, then H isn’t quite falsified.

    3. Agreed.

    4. Well put.

    5.

    This space would also be infinite dimensional, but its cardinality would be far beyond Hilbert space

    This is the space of all (logically?) possible states for the universe? The more I think about it, the more I’m wondering if one can even have a well-defined set like that, or if it runs into the same kinds of problems that you get from “The set of all sets,” or some such. Your points about the trickiness of using measure theory in such a situation are well-taken, and I think I need to brush up on that subject and set theory to be able to think about this more clearly.

  51. 51
    Marcus Ranum

    ArtK@#34:
    The atheist’s logic goes this way: I have seen all of the “strongest cases” for God and the evidence that the natural world is the product of natural processes, therefore God does not exist (or is useless, or probably doesn’t exist, etc.)

    Um, no. Decidedly no. The atheist’s logic goes like this: I see no definition of “god” and compelling evidence for the existence of that “god” under its definition, therefore I see no reason to assume it exists. Don’t bother me any further until you’ve made some progress on those first points, ok?

    The “strongest case for god” would be relevant only in the context of there being a definition of what god is, and evidence that it is, in fact, that.

    Let me give you an example: suppose I tell you that gravity is caused by teeny weeny super strong strings that stretch all over the universe and hold everything together. In order to have a good theory I need to tell you fairly precisely what those “strings” are and how they work. Then, I do some observations that indicate that those “strings” are what my theory says they are and work the way it says they do. What I don’t get to do is hypothesize an undefined something-or-other that causes gravity and has no properties other than that it causes gravity — sort of a Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you will — that I assert exists without even having an idea what “exist” means in its case.

    God-believers pull this stunt all the time. They say, for a strawman example, “god is infinite love and stands outside the universe looking in” well, before that even becomes something I can take seriously you need to tell me WTF “infinite love” is and looks like (e.g.: how do you infinitely love a finite being like me?) and what’s “outside the universe” given that “universe” means, um, “everything” and being “outside of everything” is a contradiction in terms. It’s really easy to believe in a god that you understand absolutely nothing about!!!! The problem is that god-believers make claims for their gods while sheltering the rest of their claims about the god from testability. That’s not “cheating” that’s “bullshitting yourself”…

  52. 52
    Marcus Ranum

    They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world.

    Yep. God can observe a quantum entanglement without collapsing it. True story. All hail Loki!

  53. 53
    Marcus Ranum

    The god that most Christians believe in isn’t some nebulous, deist entity who created the universe and then faded into the background. Most Christians believe in a god with a white beard who answers prayers

    No, no! Keep your Occam’s razor at the jugular: A nebulous deist entity does not give meaning, purpose, or morality.

  54. 54
    Marcus Ranum

    God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    When they say that, simply drawl, “Oh, you worship The Universe, then?”

  55. 55
    Iain Walker

    God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

    Here’s a question I rarely see asked, and even more rarely answered: How? How is this grounding, this sustaining, this “making it possible” supposed to work? How exactly does a “transcendent” deity explain the ongoing existence of the universe? How is a “transcendent” deity an explanation for anything? An explanatory hypothesis doesn’t necessarily have to posit a detailed mechanism in order for it to be viable, but it does need to show how the explanandum is rendered more probable or understandable given the explanans.

    Also, this seems to assume that without such external grounding or sustaining, then either nothing would exist in the first place or that existence would be in danger of falling back into nothingness. An argument as to why one should suppose this to be true would be nice. I.e., why should nothingness be the default “state” which requires a god to overcome it? There’s no point in offering an explanation for X when you haven’t established that X is the case.

  56. 56
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    I guess it seems like there’s still some ambiguity loaded onto the term “falsifiable”. Do we know that there aren’t hypotheses that have effects that would allow us to make probabilistic judgments about their truth without this probability ever being able to reach zero or one? Or is “falsifiable” broad enough that it includes such statements?

    Absolute certainty is not something you should be aiming for. You cannot be absolutely certain of anything (minus maybe a few esoteric claims). You can falsify a hypothesis, and still remain open that future evidence can change your mind. This is the way science works.

  57. 57
    escuerd

    Enlightenment Liberal:

    Absolute certainty is not something you should be aiming for. You cannot be absolutely certain of anything (minus maybe a few esoteric claims). You can falsify a hypothesis, and still remain open that future evidence can change your mind. This is the way science works.

    Yep. I know, and have actually said almost exactly the same to many people myself more times than I can remember. Any honest and useful epistemology has to accept some uncertainty in just about everything, and realistically the best we can hope for probabilities is to asymptotically approach zero or one.

    In this context, though, the point I was going for was to get a handle on what Irrational Rationality meant by “falsifiable” (in the kind of precisely defined way you’d need to make mathematically useful statements about it). Part of my point was that, in practice, when we’re certain, beyond some threshold that something is false, that we consider it effectively falsified, but that didn’t seem to be quite what (s)he was talking about from some of their other points.

    I think it’s likely most posting here would agree on the basics of epistemology (and are well past the common obsession for absolute certainty), but as it happened, we were discussing one of these esoteric points where Irrational Rationality thinks we can achieve a probability of zero (which, as they stated, is still technically weaker than absolute certainty) for a specific kind of claim.

  58. 58
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    @escuerd
    I read some subtly into what you posted earlier that argues for an unfairly high standard for falsifiability w.r.t. gods, but now it seems that we’re in agreement.

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