The “Exploration” of God, or, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Religion?


TelescopeSo how is it that theists propose to discover the truth about God?

When I wrote my piece the other day about the Big Theologians’ Big Questions for Atheists — and how embarrassingly weak they were — there was a bit that I overlooked. And frankly, I’m somewhat disappointed with myself. Yes, it was just one passing phrase in a sea of bad arguments. But it’s a passing phrase that cuts to the heart of one of the most basic problems with religious belief, and I can’t believe I missed it. So I want to make amends for my sin of omission, and talk about it today.

It’s in this question for atheists by philosopher Paul Copan:

Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Emphasis mine.

“Further exploration.”

Okay. Here is my question.

How, precisely, do you propose to “explore” this issue?

GroßschwabhausenLike I said the other day, I don’t at all concede the “fact” of the supposed fine-tuning of the universe. But even if I did concede that: How do you propose “exploring” the questions of how the universe began and why it seems to be fine-tuned for life? How do you propose “exploring” whether these questions are more or less likely to be answered with God?

When scientists say that they’re going to explore the answer to some question — like, oh, say, how the universe began — they can tell you exactly how they’re going to go about that exploration. Usually in mind- numbingly specific detail. They can tell you what equipment they’re going to use, how they’re going to measure, how large a statistical sampling, what kind of control groups, etc. And they can tell you exactly how someone trying to prove them wrong would go about doing it.

When theologians say that they’re going to explore the answer to some question — like how the universe began — what they generally seem to mean is that they’re going to sit around in their living room thinking about it.

ThinkerNow. I have absolutely no objections to sitting around in your living room thinking about stuff. Seventy percent or so of what I do for this blog involves sitting around in my living room thinking about stuff. (The other thirty percent mostly involves reading, looking stuff up on the Web, commenting on other blogs, and talking to people. And sometimes taking pictures of my cats.)

But I am under no illusions about what sitting around thinking about stuff ultimately produces. I am under no illusions that sitting around thinking about stuff will somehow result in a universal truth about the nature of reality. I am completely aware of the fact that sitting around thinking about stuff tells me absolutely nothing other than… well, what I think about stuff.

Phantoms in the brainAnd even I base my living- room noodlings on stuff that other people have gone out and explored. Evolutionary biology. Neuropsychology. Astronomy. Physics. Explorations that Copan and other theologians seem depressingly unaware of… especially since they shed important light on their most central arguments.

Sitting around thinking about stuff is important. It’s useful. It’s how we see problems in other people’s ideas and theories. It’s how we come up with new ideas and theories to test. But it is not “exploring” anything except the insides of our own heads.

This is the question I keep asking: If religious belief is a real perception of an entity that really exists, then why, in the centuries and millennia that we’ve been “perceiving” that entity, has our understanding of it not improved? Why do religious believers around the world still have such radically differing “perceptions” about God? Why is it that they have no shred of consensus about God… or even any method for arriving at a consensus about God?

Bibel-1And this is a point Ingrid keeps making: Everything that religion has to offer just comes from people. There’s no data, no hard evidence. It’s all just books people wrote, speculations people have come up with, opinions people have passed down. It’s all just stuff people made up.

So again I ask: How would Copan, or any other theologian, propose to “explore” the question of God? How would he propose to “explore” the question of whether the beginning of the universe (if indeed there was a beginning) was created by God? How would he propose to “explore” the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned by God for life to come into being? (And if he did, why did he do such a piss-poor job of it?)

Does he have any definition of “exploring” the question of God’s existence other than reading other theologians, and talking to other theologians, and sitting around his living room thinking about it?

Other pieces on this topic:
Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Comments

  1. says

    “… And they can tell you exactly how someone trying to prove them wrong would go about doing it.”

    A minor point of contention here. In a true scientific experiment, the experiment itself is proof of right and wrong. If the result is what is suspected, the theory is right. If it something other than what was expected, the initial hypothesis is wrong.
    What you’re doing here is starting with a base assumption that you’re right, the experiment will provide supporting evidence and that there’s a separate process to prove you wrong.
    The beauty of science is that if you perform an experiment to prove something, I can take that experiment, replicate it exactly, and expect to achieve the same result.
    Try that with prayer… ;)

  2. says

    Does he have any definition of “exploring” the question of God’s existence other than reading other theologians, and talking to other theologians, and sitting around his living room thinking about it?
    I think that there are ways in which the study of philosophy can be said to make progress, and in many ways there’s not much more to philosophy than the activities you set out here.
    I think this question is still valuable, because “further exploration” is used to avoid the suggestion that they should have to actually come up with any kind of good reason at all for what they believe. But I can’t quite use the argument as is until I have a snappy comeback to the point about philosophy.

  3. says

    “why, in the centuries and millennia that we’ve been “perceiving” that entity, has our understanding of it not improved?”
    The typical theist response is “God is inscrutable”. The other response is “we may all perceive God differently, but its still the same God.” Both of these completely undermine the request for “further exploration”. Your response seems to be “We’ve been exploring it for thousands of years and we still don’t have a coherent explanation. WTF?”
    I heartily agree.

  4. Fastthumbs says

    Blam! Pow! Kaboom!
    So much for the Theological investigational (lack of consistent) method…
    Now all is needed is to reduce your eloquent resonce to 256 characters so that it can be used in a chat room.

  5. Mike says

    In both realms (science & theology), the real leg work is done by thinking hard. Then I think the major difference is that in science you evaluate those ideas by their consistency with external reality. In theology, you measure your ideas against “the truth in your heart” or something. I like science better because external reality is harder to fool than my own subjective emotions.

  6. says

    It sorta reminds me; my SO and I went to the 2008 Nobel Conference which was about evolution that year… The last speaker was a theologian (surprise, surprise at a religious college). Vic didn’t want to stay at first, but I insisted we at least hear him out. He spent more than an hour insisting that science include religion in the discussion of evolution, but he never said how, or why, or anything to that effect. In summary his speech was: “Please don’t forget about me!”

  7. skepticscott says

    Crystal-
    That seems to be the underlying message of so many of the Templeton Foundation types who infest the popular media and the lecture circuits with their talk of “common ground” and reconciliation” between science and religion. “Can’t we please find room for god in here somewhere? Can’t we please call something, anything god?”
    It’s very reminiscent of the calls for “bipartisanship” from a party that’s just had its ass kicked in the last election, which translate to: “Please don’t boot us out of the debate completely! Please let us do something, anything to maintain some semblance of relevance.”
    And the gaps keep shrinking.

  8. Claire B says

    Okay, I seem to be developing a habit of massively tangenting on your comment threads, Greta, so feel free to slap me down if I make a nuisance of myself… but something that just occurred to me, which was also a belated realisation in response to one of the Big Gun Believers’ questions:
    The first question said that the whole “empty tomb” thing was “well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions”. So after a pretty long pause for this to turn itself over in my mind, I was going “Wait… what?”
    Because is this guy saying that he assessed the data without any preconceptions? Is he saying that the fact that he believes, with all his heart and soul, that the gospels are true, had nothing to do with the way he analysed the evidence for an event that’s described in the gospels?
    Because if so, then I’m sorry but he’s talking rubbish. If you assess something “without preconceptions”, then it must follow as the night the day, that you do so without wishing the evidence to prove one thing or the other. And is he really, honestly saying that he would have been totally fine with it if the evidence had been against that event being historical? That it wouldn’t have bothered him even slightly?
    I really don’t think so.
    A minor point, certainly, but mine own.

  9. Bruce Gorton says

    Claire B
    Also, that Jesus got a tomb is a plot hole within the story.
    Unless I am very much mistaken in reading the history…
    The Romans generally didn’t honour the dead if they were found guilty of treason.
    Jesus, if he had been crucified for treason, would have been buried in a criminal’s plot, not in a highly expensive, newly excavated tomb.
    It would have been a sign that they considered the sentence unjust, which would have undermined Pilate’s authority.
    And the Jews themselves wouldn’t have given Jesus a tomb – the Pharisees saw him as a heretic.

  10. skepticscott says

    Bruce Gorton-
    Actually, according to the Gospels (all four, in fact), it was not the Romans or the Jewish leaders who arranged for Jesus burial. Joseph of Arimathea asked to be given Jesus’ body and had it prepared for a more dignified burial. Matthew’s gospel refers to the tomb as Joseph’s own, though the other three do not.

  11. Kagehi says

    There is a book called “Caesar’s Messiah”, which does a lot of speculating on the similarities between the “battles” in Josephus’ history and the places and things Jesus was supposed to have done. He suggests that the reason there are three contradictory versions of events is due to it being “intentional”. That, in effect, they are playing a joke on Christians, even as they “promote” their new unifying replacement religion. He connects the events of the empty tomb to the robbing of tombs in one of the cities during the war, where people had started eating the dead, having run out of food.
    In his version, you have three “Mary”s, which function like “common names”, a sort of “Jane Doe”. The first one shows up at the wrong tomb, get all jazzed at it being empty and runs off to tell people. Two of those told show up and start looking around in the tomb, finding it empty, only to proclaim to the next “Mary” to arrive, “Its is, and its empty!”, which she gets all flustered about, and runs off to tell more people. So, these two, in grey, dust covered cloth, go in and are looking around, when a third group show up, again, with a Mary among them, who get all freaked out because the way the light is falling in the tomb in the early morning, combined with the dust, etc., makes the two men inside look like they are glowing. And “they” run off to tell everyone of the miracle as well.
    Mind, I may have some bits out of order, but.. Point is, he implies that the reason the three are conflicted is that they are meant to be taken “together”, along with an understanding to the events of the campaign Josephus wrote about, as a comedy. Three fool women, too stupid to figure out they are at the wrong tomb, and a bunch of men, who are just as dumb, who fall for their hysteria.
    Who knows… Its not like we have proof that the events took place, proof that it “wasn’t” written in conjunction with Josephus’ works, which where in the “same” period. But, we also don’t have any record indicating how Josephus, or Titus “knew” and decided, which “events” to put into the campaign record, which does appear to “intend” to imply that Titus could have been the “second coming”.
    But, it would be damn funny if someone found evidence of it.

  12. Bruce Gorton says

    skepticscott
    Ah, but would he have been allowed to?
    To allow someone an “honourable” burial would have meant allowing that someone to be seen as being unfairly killed – something which would have undermined Pilate’s authority.
    This was an unstable period in the region’s history, with a rising interest in martyrs by dissedent factions – Rome would have not been interested in providing one.
    Further, if you read the books, they also say that Jesus’ followers were afraid to be identified with him due to the possibility of Roman retaliation, so someone offering Jesus a highly expensive freshly carved tomb would be taking one heck of a risk.

  13. Claire B says

    Actually, while we’re on the topic of the historicity, or otherwise, of Jesus, did anyone else click through on Greta’s link to the Ebonmuse essay “Choking on the Camel”?
    If not, I urge you to go read it, I found it fascinating. While I’d never actually believed the whole “Jesus as son of God” shtick, I’d previously assumed Jesus to at least have been a historically existing figure. I’m now convinced there’s no real evidence for that, and I’d defy anyone to read that essay thoroughly and come up with a different conclusion.
    Provided, of course, that they’re reading it without preconceptions…

  14. skepticscott says

    Bruce Gorton-
    By all of the accounts, Joseph was a rich and influential man, so he may not have been taking that much of a risk in the first place. But more importantly, the Romans had never really paid any attention to Jesus in the first place. He was an agitator within the Jewish community, but had never advocated defiance of, or rebellion against the Roman authorities. And to the extent that you can believe the Biblical accounts, Pontius Pilate did believe that he was unfairly killed-he saw no reason to punish him at all. And if he had been concerned about creating a martyr, it would have been his crucifixion that did that, not the specific details of his burial. It’s not that hard to explain his giving the body over to Joseph as his was of assuaging his conscience to some degree.
    Again, all of this holds only to the extent that the Gospel accounts are accurate and not totally made up decades after the fact.

  15. J. J. Ramsey says

    Claire B: “did anyone else click through on Greta’s link to the Ebonmuse essay ‘Choking on the Camel’?”
    Been there, done that. I’m sorry, but I have a lot of trouble taking seriously an article that says complete bullshit like, “If Jesus Christ had been an actual, historical person, we would expect to have first-hand, contemporary documentation.” Yeah, if you had an all-singing, all-dancing Messiah, maybe, and even then there are problems with things like preservation of the documentation. But if you are talking about a guy overshadowed by wannabe Messiahs who, y’know, actually started violent uprisings, not so much.
    It also doesn’t help that Ebonmuse cites Doherty’s argument that Christians thought Jesus was crucified in a Platonic higher realm. It’s rather strange that Ebonmuse and Doherty expect that if Jesus were a real mortal being that there would be far more documentary evidence than we have, yet don’t expect Paul to refer to this Platonic realm in a clear fashion. It doesn’t help when Doherty uses fallacious argument in favor of his interpretation of Paul.
    Sorry for the OT, but I don’t like letting Jesus-myther pseudohistory stand.

  16. Claire B says

    Hi JJ! To be honest, the thing I found most convincing wasn’t the idea that Paul was referring to Platonic realms, or the idea that there would have been more documentary evidence if Jesus really had existed: it was why, if Jesus really had existed, the early Christian apologists were talking so much like he hadn’t. Not even meaning just Paul, but all of the early Christians quoted in the essay. There were a whole lot of places where it really seemed totally implausible that someone would have said the things they said (or not said the things they didn’t say), if they believed the things they are popularly supposed to have believed.

  17. says

    J.J.: It’s true that not every fly- by- night messianic figure in Judea around 30 C.E. would have been recorded in contemporary accounts (although some of them were). But even if you concede that a messianic figure named Joshua needn’t have shown up in contemporary accounts to have plausibly existed (more on that in a tic), I think Ebon’s argument still holds.
    For one thing, there are other events described in the Gospels — such as the earthquake, three hours of worldwide darkness, and the bodies of saints rising from their tombs, which all supposedly happened on Jesus’s death — that almost certainly would have been recorded in contemporary accounts, since they would have been huge. They weren’t.
    And back to Jesus himself: The Gospels don’t just describe some random half-assed messianic figure of the kind that Judea was lousy with at the time. They describe a figure widely known throughout the region and followed by enormous crowds, who drew the attention of authorities at a fairly high level. The Gospels do describe an all-singing, all-dancing Messiah… who would almost certainly have been written about by somebody. Probably lots of somebodies. He wasn’t.
    And of course, you have oodles of internal inconsistencies within the New Testament itself.
    Therefore, the New Testament account of Jesus’s life is highly implausible.
    And that’s the only account of it we have.
    Add to that the fact that many crucial elements of the Jesus myth are present in other mythologies of the time (including mythologies that precede the Jesus one)… and you further put the kibosh on the idea that the Jesus story is an accurate account of a unique historical figure.
    And then add to that the fact that the New Testament was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people who passionately believed in those events and were trying to convert others to that belief.
    The point isn’t, “There are no contemporary historical accounts of Jesus, therefore Jesus didn’t exist.” The point is, “There are no contemporary accounts of Jesus, AND the New Testament is internally inconsistent, historically inconsistent, deeply biased, written well after the fact, eerily similar to mythologies that preceded it, and otherwise unreliable. Therefore, since the New Testament is our only account of Jesus’s life, we have no good reason to think Jesus existed. And other explanations for the New Testament accounts are every bit as plausible, if not more so.”

  18. J. J. Ramsey says

    To deal with your points out of order…
    Greta Christina:

    Add to that the fact that many crucial elements of the Jesus myth are present in other mythologies of the time (including mythologies that precede the Jesus one)…

    This is often claimed, but I have yet to find that the support for this claim is all that good. For example, Robert Gillooly writes in the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, “Following his resurrection, the great god Osiris chose not to resume his earthly duties, but instead ascended into Heaven.” If you look at the actual myths about Osiris, one finds that they have his body dismembered and then put back together, but after that he goes to the underworld and becomes lord of the dead.
    I find similar liberties taken elsewhere. There’s an article by J.Z. Smith in the Encyclopedia of Religion on “Dying and Rising Gods” arguing that the whole dying-and-rising-gods idea is a by-product of shoehorning non-Christian myths into a Christian mold.
    Greta Christina:

    For one thing, there are other events described in the Gospels — such as the earthquake, three hours of worldwide darkness, and the bodies of saints rising from their tombs, which all supposedly happened on Jesus’s death — that almost certainly would have been recorded in contemporary accounts, since they would have been huge. They weren’t.

    The trouble is that this line of argument is, to put it bluntly, useless against the claim that a historical Jesus is the best explanation for why the content of the New Testament and other documents about Jesus is what it is. Note that this claim does not rely on the New Testament being reliable, and arguments for this claim have been based in the tensions and flaws of the New Testament.
    For example, why do the birth narratives of Jesus have circuitous roots by which Jesus is born in Bethlehem, which superficially fits an Old Testament prophecy, but ends up living in Nazareth, which isn’t in the Old Testament at all (despite Matthew’s attempt to say otherwise) and is a podunk town with no theological significance? From the perspective of a mythicist, this ought to seem at least a little odd, since there isn’t a good theological reason to have him in Nazareth in the first place, and it would be simpler just to have Jesus be a Bethlehemite. For the historicist, the explanation is far more trivial: the writers of the birth narratives are stuck with Jesus being a Nazarene and find ways to work around it.
    I’ve seen assorted attempts to argue that the Nazarenes were a pre-Christian sect, and that’s why the mythical Jesus is a Nazarene not a Bethlehemite, but the evidence for such a sect is thin at best. And don’t get me started on the “Nazareth didn’t exist” crowd.
    There’s also the matter of the Christian narrative itself, which has Jesus being claimed as Messiah despite not having done what messiahs are supposed to have done–namely overthrow the Romans in Judea and usher in a new shiny age–and getting killed by the very guys that he was supposed to overthrow. To put it bluntly, as a messiah, Jesus was yet another failure. We don’t think of him as a failure because we’ve so bought into the Christian rationalizations for it, namely that he died for our sins and will come back Real Soon Now to bring it that new age, and so we don’t think of what a clumsy mess it is. As an evolutionary kluge, it makes a lot of sense: cult members back the wrong guy and invent reasons for why he’s the right guy instead of owning up to their mistakes. As a story made up from scratch, it’s a lot more bizarre.

  19. Claire B says

    Okay, that’s funny. I just tried to post something and it seems to have vanished. I’ll try again. Sorry if this turns out to be a repeat:
    I’m still thinking about those quotes in the original essay, in particular this one where this guy is being asked “is it true you guys worship an criminal who was executed?” and he basically goes, “Nope”, and doesn’t even try to qualify it by saying “Actually he wasn’t a criminal at all and blah blah” or anything like that.
    That’s not the only quote I found convincing, of course, but it’s the one that’s stuck in my mind.

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