So Greta Christina wrote a piece pointing out that even the vaguest, waffleist, broadest version of God is incompatible with the science, and then my favorite tech and media pundit, Andy Ihnatko, wrote a critique of her article. It’s a decent attempt, but really, it falls into the same trap Greta is talking about.
I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.
I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:
You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.
In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.
I’m saying that this position is untenable…
I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.
Ihnatko goes on to say much more, and in particular I’ll say his discussion of Intelligent Design creationism is spot on; ID is particularly vile for its calculated and disingenuous attempt to hide its religious foundations for marketing reasons. But I have to agree with Greta that science and religion are incompatible, and that sending your god off into the distant past and a tenuous and murky relationship with reality is not a good strategy for convincing anyone of its relevance…which is exactly what Greta is saying. This by Ihnatko, in particular, is not a defense of god:
Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.
Let’s dissect that.
First of all, science isn’t in the business of proving anything, ever. It’s a process for developing knowledge about the world, and we don’t talk about proofs, because knowledge is provisional and changes as we learn more. We tend not to say “Prove it!”. Rather, we’re more likely to say, “What’s your evidence for that?” or “How does it fit into this other body of hard-earned knowledge?” We’re also much, much more likely to ask how you know something, what process you followed to arrive at your conclusion, and to ever-so-awkwardly point out errors in your logic or observations.
We don’t consider such questions vulgar. They’re necessities for assessing a claim. I wouldn’t flatter believers by suggesting that they’re “secure enough in themselves” — I’d be more likely to say that they’re arrogant to think that they don’t need to answer simple questions about their process, and that what they’re doing in their obstinate refusal to think about the mechanisms of their beliefs makes them more similar to a dishonest used car salesman trying to pass off a lemon by hiding its repair history.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. It was a Catholic philosopher, Pierre Abélard, who said that “By doubting we are led to enquire, and by enquiry we perceive the truth”. Honest inquiry is what scientists expect. Stonewalling the conversation by pretending inquiry is vulgar makes us very, very suspicious.
The heart of Ihnatko’s argument rests on assuming that there is an exception to Greta’s argument, that she has failed to sufficiently address deism or the Watchmaker God idea — that maybe there is a sufficiently non-dogmatic, non-specific version of the god concept in which it is a being that just started the natural world and stood back and let it play out. You can’t disprove that, he says.
I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).
I’ll repeat, science isn’t about proofs. You can’t disprove the idea that Superman built a time machine, traveled back 13.7 billion years ago, and used his super-strength to create an exploding singularity, either. But science doesn’t care. We just ask what your evidence is that such a being exists, how do you know that he did that, and when you cite some back issue of Action Comics, we know to dismiss your claim on epistemological grounds.
It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.
But how you choose to define god is the important question! “God exists, as long as you don’t ask me to say what God is” is not a good answer, but is an evasion. It makes it impossible to evaluate your explanation.
You could argue that religion and science are compatible as long as religion simply accepts whatever science says about the nature of the universe (which was basically Gould’s argument in Rocks of Ages — I thought it was a cop out when an atheist said it, and I still think it’s a cop out when a deist says it). But that should not be a reasonable approach to someone trying to defend religious belief, because it cuts religion off at the knees. It really says that those holy religious texts are nothing more than the imaginative speculations of human beings, which are to be superseded by science. That’s fine by me, but then be consistent, and follow through and discard the religion part.
There’s also an implicit bias in the language: “God” implies a conscious being, an entity that is actively doing something — it may be as generic as triggering the Big Bang, or as persistent as something that constantly tweaks the human genome to shape us. But there’s no reason to think that what created the universe was aware, or human-like in its purposes, or even deserving of personal pronouns. You could argue that nucleosynthesis is god, for instance; that the process that assembled larger atoms from smaller ones is the divine creative purpose. But you’d be silly to call nucleosynthesis a “he” or “she”, or to address it in your prayers, or to think your conglomeration of carbon is a holy act. Yeah, you can go ahead and call it “god” and make a “First Church of Nucleosynthesis”, but it would represent an absurd anthropomorphosis of a natural physical process.
I think there’s a fundamental property of the human mind that tends to do these sorts of silly theological exercises, and here’s how science gets appropriated. This is Jacob Bronowski’s definition of science:
Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.
We are typically successful in finding that unity, and then the human mind tries to call it God, bringing in all the cultural baggage that that word carries. It’s not helpful. It obscures more than it enlightens. We should reject the whole notion of “god” because it fails to clarify.
As Ihnatko says, though, you can make it work by not pretending that it has anything to do with science, or that your church can provide any insight into the nature of reality. Sure, go if it makes you feel better, but put away the pretense that you actually learn anything about reality there. You’re engaging in a social behavior that makes you feel good, which is fine, but not something more.
I always love these kinds of arguments.
The one defending the deist/theist position that there is no conflict with science INEVITABLY invents a god hypothesis that is no more relevant to reality than the purple flying fuzzmonkey I just invented in my own head.
If this, in the end, is what religion delegates itself to (which I use Ken Miller as an example), then it is literally a toothless dragon, devoid of meaning and relevance to pretty much anything, let alone philosophy or science.
It makes me smile to see the god hypothesis paint itself into a corner thusly.
Meh. God doesn’t need to fit anyone’s ideas of god. This doesn’t really say anything to me other than that the best god of power is currently called science.
And, of course, there is a cost to believing in even the most vaporous god. The cost is that you give implicit support to those who believe in more definite gods, including the god whose dreadful commands we see being obeyed in Iraq today.
I feel kind of weird taking a contrary position here, but that sounds like some sort of a argument ad populum or however that’s called. Or like the gateway drug hypothesis. Religions have fouled lots of stuff, but the word god is a word. It means different things to each person. That’s not the sort of thing that I feel comfortable policing. Or judging.
I do feel comfortable judging claims about god. But, regardless of that, I think Andy got this one right.
Often people trying to say science and god are “compatible” involves the use of a definition like: “A scientist can believe in god and still do good and useful science.” On it’s face this definition is nigh useless. Humans are capable of believing inconsistent ideas and if you compartmentalize or if it’s not relevant it doesn’t effect your work.
irrelevant. the point is, if you are going to say your particular god hypothesis is compatible with a particular definition of science, you need to define BOTH.
you can’t leave things undefined and then expect a valid comparison between them. surely you can at least see that?
Sure I can see that. Maybe I just hang with different types of religious people than you because my experience with religion in the USA is that God with a capital G tends to be considered as a sort of an unknowable cosmic-ness which really does work out to Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria in most ways.
I have never been religious though and there are certainly a different breed of wingnut in the american south and in other less urban/education rich parts of the world. For that case or class of cases, I do understand the point of the OP, but I just think it suffers the curse of stereotypes as it expands to try to cover the broadest class possible.
NOMA itself is failed logic. I leave it as an exercise for you to find the various critiques of it that have been published.
that said… I have no problem if someone wants to argue a god of vapor. I do have a problem with someone trying to convince me, or anyone else, that it has any more relevance to any particular figment of my own imagination.
you’re either deluded, or ignorant, if you think the vast majority of Christians in the US think their god is vapor.
Well, NOMA has the unfortunate problem of including afterlife in its direct argument. Anyway, I may indeed be deluded. But I still buy andy’s general argument above. I am not afraid of the word god near as much as I am afraid of people who want to define it for me.
If it gives people a warm fuzzy feeling to imagine there’s an unknowable cosmic-ness that somehow governs the universe, well that’s their problem.
My objection arises when these people, together with the more rabid variety to whom they carelessly give protective cover, permit – or even demand – that religious bollocks be taught to children in school as fact, that religious bollocks be (or remain) enshrined in law, that religious bollocks can be used as an excuse for acts of war or other violence, and that purveyors of religious bollocks get massive tax-breaks for which the rest of us have to pay.
Never mind the “gateway drug” idea. How about the contribution this lovely fuzzy deism makes to legitimising the harmful and expensive crap that religion does in societies around the world and gets away with?
Hmm. Again, I just think that once a brush gets to be that size, it stops being useful for painting pictures. However, that is merely my opinion. It’s not like this is an empirical issue. I am not arguing too convince. I was just registering my opinion.
Al Dente says
While certain theologians and some other theists believe in a deist deity who cranked up the universe and then faded into the background, never to be seen again, most theists of the Abrahamist persuasions believe in an old guy with a white beard who answers prayers, decides which team will win The Big Game, and has an unhealthy preoccupation with peoples’ sex lives. Many theists will profess to an ineffable god when defending their beliefs to atheists, but when talking amongst themselves these theists revert to the guy who listens to prayers and obsesses about masturbation.
That is called stereotyping and it’s a fallacy.
Maureen Brian says
objart @ 7,
I cannot see how any god can be an “unknowable cosmic-ness” – emphasis mine – and yet have its adherents marching up and down, telling everyone else that they know for certain what this god wants in school curricula and how it is instructing them to draw up legislation to enforce that god’s “proven” preferences as regards brands of contraceptives. More of them display that certainty in the US than in the UK, by the way.
It does not make sense. As a species we have already wasted far to much time trying to square this particular circle. Let us get on with doing something useful with our brains.
Maureen, I don’t see that either.
But Maureen, how do your last 2 sentences follow from the one immediately before them?
Just because one aspect of humanity doesn’t make sense…
Very minor quibble, but calling Peter Abelard a Catholic is rather misleading. The term “catholic” (catholicus) was, of course, used by medieval Europeans to describe their church, but as a general and optional descriptive adjective (hence the lack of capital letter) rather than a very definite part of an official nomenclature. It was only in the early modern period, when there were established, competing Protestant churches, that “Catholic” began to be the trademarked brand name for the very specific, backward-looking type of Christianity it describes today. To project it back to medieval Christian practices is to presume an unwarranted continuity – to acquiesce in the Roman Catholic church’s claim that it is the true and legitimate and only inheritor of medieval Christian tradition. This is simply not true – the Protestant denominations also arose from medieval traditions, and the modern Catholic church is very different from the medieval church, having turned its back on many currents of medieval thought. The comparison I like to draw is this – modern Catholicism is to medieval Christianity what the Sealed Knot re-enactment society is to the soldiers of the (English) Civil War. It is consciously anachronistic, which makes it very different – medieval Christians did their things (relic cult, worship of saints, scholastic theology etc.) because it was real and immediate and natural to them and their culture, modern Catholics do the same things because they evoke a long-passed time of medieval mystique and grandeur.
But even on his own estimation of the word catholic, or more significantly that of his contemporaries, Peter Abelard is a difficult case. To medieval Christians it signified being a part of a universal community of orthodox belief and practice, and Abelard’s beliefs were anything but orthodox. He was tried for heresy twice – at Soissons in 1121 and again at Sens in 1140 – and his teachings, particularly his new ideas on the trinity, condemned both times. Bernard of Clairvaux hated him, mostly because he was the epitome of the worldly, secular (in its medieval sense of not in orders), unorthodox university master, and he trusted strongly in the power of logic and reason and thumbed his nose at tradition, orthodoxy, dogma and doctrine. Even when he was cloistered away with the monks of St. Denis in his older years – a kind of exile to keep him out of the public eye – he made trouble by engaging in antiquarian speculation over the true identity of St. Denis and calling into question the association of the patron saint of both his order and France itself with the much more august Dionysius the Areopagite. It eventually led to his expulsion from the order by abbot Suger. The episode is instructive – Abelard simply did not respect the importance that his contemporaries placed on traditional explanations for the sake of institutional and national pride. He was a conscious and knowing iconoclast (he styles himself such in his autobiography, the historia calamitatum).
Which is why the appellation “Catholic” seems pointedly and amusingly oxymoronic when he’s being invoked explicitly for the inquiring, rationalistic attitudes he held. Attitudes which, in their application, isolated and ostracised him from the community of belief and practice implied by the term “catholic”.
Wow. That was pretty awesome. It’s comments like that that keep me reading this blog.
Doubting Thomas says
Vapor has its own characteristics. In long online arguments with believers it’s been my experience that some of them just use their refusal to define their concept of god as a defense. If I don’t or won’t define it, you can’t deny it is real.
Maureen Brian says
Thought is not rationed, objdart. I am allowed to have two thoughts, even more if I need to.
If my thoughts are even vaguely related to the OP – they are – I feel comfortable putting them in the same post. I did put a paragraph break there to help you.
According to me, sentence two of the second paragraph follows directly from sentence one and sentence one follows from paragraph one. So I can say, if you wish, that your original description of this god is not supported by the observed behaviour of its adherents. I can also say that apologetics for an unknowable god would likely be a logical impossibility.
Or I can accuse you of wanking. Whichever you prefer.
Well I’ll agree with you on that point, objdart – cartomancer‘s knowledge in this area and generous ability to explain it in fascinating and accessible fashion whenever it comes up is awesome ;-)
If you accuse me of wanking, what does that entail, precisely? :)
Maureen Brian says
It’s a metaphor. I presume that you know its dictionary meaning.
So, when I use it in this context it means that I see you as pulling at ever more desperate and tortuous suppositions in order to disagree with the OP but without committing yourself to a statement of belief or an assertion of fact.
… not so much on the other points, though. There is no way to have a coherent, consistent concept of “god” that actually interacts with the universe in any way at all (apart from having set it going and then buggered off forever) which is not contradicted by reality as observed with the help of a scientific approach.
As much as I normally like Ihnatko, his defense fails the Leprechaun Test: Replace “God” with “Leprechauns” and see whether anything changes:
“There’s nothing wrong with believing that Leprechauns created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either”
“It’s possible to believe in Leprechauns (as you choose to define Leprechauns) and science at the same time.”
The “God” versions are no more solid, no more demonstrated, than these “Leprechaun” claims. Test failed.
MissAtheist32 . says
She says god must be cruel if he used evolution. I would ad that a gog who wants so badly to be worshiped would leave evidence, and using the natural process of evolution isn’t good for that – and there is no evidence. So it’s inconsistente with the christian god or any god who wants to be worshiped. As for the deist god, there’s no evidence either,so it’s at least irrelevant.
Marcus Ranum says
When the faithful fall back on the great unknowable woo-god they fail because:
A) if it’s unknowable, how did they come to believe it exists?
B) saying god is unknowable rejects the very knowable gods of human mythologies
The unknowable woo-god is an attempt to shelter belief by putting epistemology off the game-board. But when they shelter their epistemology, they admit they know nothing and have no reason for believing.
The main point that I make against such claims is lack of falsifiability. Let’s say we discover such a vaporous deist ‘god’. How is that any different from a world without such a god? Labeling something a god doesn’t change the nature of the world. It is fundamentally indistinguishable from atheism.
It’s possible some entity which cannot be detected,
Outside of our experience despite how we’ve inspected,
Was the first cause of the universe, and first began to move it
It’s possible, by which I mean that no one can disprove it.
And that’s why I, specifically,
Believe in Christ of Galilee
Beyond the grasp of scientists, beyond our poor sensations
Beyond the reach of telescopes, which all have limitations
Before the birth of matter, and of energy’s first pulse
There may have been intelligence—you cannot prove it false.
Believing in the Christian God
Is, therefore, not the least bit odd
The beauty of the universe holds all of us in thrall
No scientist would be so bold as claim we know it all
The open-minded person will admit that, just perhaps,
Some unseen causal entity lies hidden in the gaps
It cannot, therefore, be denied
It’s for our sins that Jesus died
A bit of bread, a sip of wine
Are flesh and blood, by will divine
A savior-king, of virgin birth
Who holds dominion over Earth
Belief in whom must hold the key
To heaven and eternity
Without whose love and magic spell
You’ll spend forever, trapped in hell
A god so strong, and so complex
He cares with whom we might have sex
We’ve never seen the evidence, and frankly never will
Another gap will open up for every one we fill
The less a god is visible, the more that god is strong:
As long as God does nothing, why, you cannot prove Him wrong.
The problem is that there’s a tiny number of theologians who argue that God is some vaguely defined cosmic principle but billions of actual worshipers who pray to a Personal Beardy who hates gays and shellfish.
All religions of any definition are fundamentally a copout. They substitute faith for evidence, thus depriving us of our best (and only) tool for accurately determining causality. Failing to understand causality prevents us from making reliable predictions and thus limits our ability to make correct decisions and successfully interact with our environment.
Whenever we give up and simply guess (or define a question as unknowable), we inevitably weaken our ability to make correct choices. There is a huge difference in declaring something to be unknowable and in believing that “we don’t know something yet“.
The psychology alone behind this should be obvious. Obviously, there are exceptions but most successful scientists (and IMHO people in general) are successful because they don’t give up when the going gets rough. Anytime we are willing to accept an answer of “magic” to any question, then we preclude any possibility of ever truly knowing the correct answer.
Which is why all religions are antithetical to science, and either intrinsically dangerous (as in the Middle East) or extrinsically just as dangerous (by providing “cover” to literally infinite varieties of nonsense).
Al Dente says
That’s called a non sequitur and is also a fallacy. If you claim my post @13 is “stereotyping” then show that most Christians/Jews/Muslims don’t believe in the god I described.
Cuttlefish, you make me smile.
Isn’t he really just saying that one can believe in a god, as long as one acts like an atheist? Don’t talk about it. Don’t make any falsifiable claims.
The Mellow Monkey says
objdart @ 7
Your experience does not match the reality of the USA. All of these statistics are from the last three years:
Forty-six percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last ten thousand years. Thirty-two percent believe God guided evolution.
Thirty percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Forty-nine percent believe it is the “inspired word.”
Forty-four percent of Americans believe homosexuality is a sin.
This is not “an unknowable cosmic-ness” that these people believe in and these are not tiny, negligible numbers.
The “unknowable cosmic-ness” is just a cover for this bullshit. Maybe people will tell you that, maybe people will argue it because they know it’s considered rude to argue against it, but the actual nitty, gritty beliefs don’t match that.
SC (Salty Current), OM says
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
I was curious what the rough numbers would be. The United States is currently sitting at more than 318 million people. That 46% figure you listed gives us roughly 146 million people. That’s a lot of people believing religious nonsense.
Is a nebulous “god” that doesn’t interfere with science tenable? Yeah, if you don’t care to think about either your god or your science.
Is your god an intelligence? Is it (he/she) a center of information and order that plays (played) an active role in what unfolds in the universe we are trying to understand? If not, why bother with religion. Is intelligence something which science can help us to understand? Do you want to understand? If not, why bother with science.
Is intelligence a product of the natural laws of the universe? Or are nature and the laws of the universe a product of intelligence? Are entropy and evolution key to understanding human existence, or is divine existence the key to understanding why entropy and evolution are mere human misconceptions?
Keep your religion if you want to, but don’t pretend that it can ever be compatible with science. And get out of the way while those of us who give a damn try to understand.
There are two options at that point. “God” is a nonsense word that doesn’t describe anything. Or the more likely: “God” becomes Super Vague and adopts a null definition whenever it is subjected to scrutiny, and then suddenly springs back to its normal definitions once people go back to their everyday, uncritical, everyday belief set.
You do how definitions and language work, right? Yes, the definition of words ARE determined ad populum. We shouldn’t just nod sagely when someone says that their definition of a god is just a tasty burrito. They are using the word wrong. This isn’t relativistic, everybody gets their own truth kinda bullshit. You don’t get just redefine words and then yell at people for daring to criticize your own personal idiosyncratic bizarro usage of a word that is everyone else’s common lexicon.
The “personal definition” of god is just a word game. It is just a way to define god into existence, or to make it duck under scrutiny. It is a transparent ploy.
Who the fuck do you hang out with? New Agers or Unitarian Universalists? Deists? Because if they are straight up Christians who spout that kind of shit…..they are bullshitting you. Pulling the wool over your eyes after they pull it over their own. If they think that God cares about human kind, if they think that He intervenes, if they think that He is a He, if they think that He has a consciousness and a goal for human life, then your characterization of their position is blatant falsehood.
What the fuck are you on about? Show these stereotypes. Because both PZ and Greta are most decidedly NOT talking about the wingnuts you refer to.
lolwut? Not afraid of the word god? Are you implying that we are? Afraid of people who want to define God? Are you often terrified of dictionaries and encyclopedias?
What issue are you referring to specifically? Because odds are, it can be addressed empirically. Things usually can be, if you try to think of how to approach it from the right angle.
One: Bullshit. Show your work.
Two: Look up the Fallacy Fallacy. You seem very likely to fall into that particular trap.
It reminds me of Carl Sagan’s dragon-in-the-garage. Their god is indistinguishable from nothingness.
Marcus Ranum says
That is called stereotyping and it’s a fallacy.
One: Bullshit. Show your work.
That sounds like an interesting challenge!
Stereotyping is fallacious (based on an unsound argument) because it claims that a group of people display a certain property simply because a few (stereotypes) are believed to. In order to successfully argue that a stereotype was accurate, one would have to present an inductive argument that the presence of the property in the stereotype was generally the case. If such an inductive argument were offered, then there would be no need to point to the stereotypical members any more, therefore stereotyping is either wrong or useless.
For example, if I said “All guys named Marcus are nerds” and pointed to this particular Marcus as a stereotypical example, I have not added any information unless I can argue why the name “Marcus” and nerdiness are connected. If it were – hypothetically – the case that social science studies indicated that “nerdiness” always resulted from being named ‘Marcus’ then the stereotypical Marcus ought to be a nerd, as would all other Marcuses. But, I can present that argument, then there’s no need to appeal to induction by stereotype.
Marcus Ranum says
God doesn’t need to fit anyone’s ideas of god
Since god is an idea, god has to fit at least one person’s idea of a god.
Good point at 42, Marcus Ranum. I was reluctant to consider stereotyping a logical fallacy, I will admit. But for clarity: The “bullshit” response was to the declaration that someone’s (Al Dente’s (?)) comment was stereotyping.
objdart, you are exibiting signs of trolling.
Ihnatko irks me twice. First, he misses the two meanings of “faith”, but then, a lot of people do. See, there is a belief that a god exists, then, after that, there is a belief that that god is trustworthy. The early part of the bible addresses trust in the goodness of an obviously-necessarily-existing god, while the later parts get to believing in the existence of Jesus. Ihnatko gets that wrong while spouting about that TV show — the dialogue talks about goodness, he hears existence.
Second, he goes full agnostic in saying that he believes that God is unknowable. What does that even mean? How can anything be un-understandable by definition, and how can we know that something can’t be known? Ihnatko has just gone for a god of the gaps done up in fancy words.
He is wrong in that he misses the point of the original article, too. We simply have no reason to think that any sort of god has ever intervened in any way. If it ever becomes evident that something set up the original parameters of this universe, that will still not imply any intervention in the workings of the world, nor make any difference on what I do with my winkie.
Ihnatko has fallen into the classic blunder of starting off with the god of the bible, and doing his damnedest to keep as many bits of it as he can, rather than doing as PZ suggests, and chucking the whole business to start fresh.
When accommodationists claim that some forms of theism are “compatible” with science, what they invariably mean is that some forms of theism, if rendered sufficiently vague, don’t directly contradict the findings of science.
But all forms of faith conflict directly with the methods of science, which is an incompatibility on a much deeper level. That’s the conflict the accommodationists never address, because that’s the one which cannot be resolved.
Greta Christina says
objdart @ #2, #4, #7, #10, #12, #14, #16, #17, #23: What you’re basically complaining about is that I didn’t refute the existence of every single god that anyone has ever believed in — in a 2,600 word article for Salon.
True. I did not do that. And I did not set out to do that. I set out to refute the existence of a fairly specific class of god — namely, the god who supposedly created all of life in general, and humanity in particular, by tinkering with the process of evolution. (I also touched on — and dismissed — the more vague, deistic version of the theistic evolution god, who supposedly set his creation in motion billions of years ago, knowing how it would turn out, but without interfering.) I said so right at the top of the piece: I was arguing against the belief that “evolution is how God created life.”
This is a god believed in by over 30% of Americans. And it is not, in fact, a god believed in by “wingnut in the american south and in other less urban/education rich parts of the world.” (Quick parenthetical tangent to take note of classism.) It is a god believed in by many progressive and moderate believers. It is therefore a specific class of god that is worth refuting.
Andy Ihnatko and the late Stephen Jay Gould are defenders of the idea of non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA) between religion and science. Gould defended NOMA by saying that one can’t get an “ought” from an “is”, meaning that questions of morality cannot be decided by reference to observable reality. My response is that one can’t get an “ought” from an “isn’t”, meaning that we have no source for moral thoughts from ineffable unknowableness, which implies that our moral judgments are ultimately always derived from observable reality, and from junk we make up in our own brains.
Ihnatko overlooks that the common point of religion for most people is to tell us how to behave in the physical universe. For my UU friends, their religion tells them to relax and be open to others, while for most people, their religions tell them more specific things to worry about.
A pure NOMA interpretation would be that the physical universe gave Gould no reason NOT to kill everyone around him arbitrarily, but that also there was no source in the physical universe for moral reasons not to do that. I reject that NOMA view.
As Paul Kurtz said, we have ethics that are derived from the common moral decencies we can observe in the physical universe of our own human societies. So we as secular humanists DO have real reasons, with a genuine non-mystical source, for making ethical judgments. Meanwhile, the religious still have no source for ethics beyond saying that they have a hearsay report that someone else heard voices in their head, so that is the highest law.
So PZ and Greta are right that Ihnatko is unjustified here. But I still love his tech writing.
John Horstman says
Same old BS equivocation about what is meant by “god”. Hell, why not go full-on circular and assert that what one means by “god” is whatever force created the universe, so by definition god created the universe? It’s basically the same tautology used as a cop-out, with the advantage that it’s logically a much stronger formulation.
Oh yes, there is. In terms of intellectual honesty that is an entirely unjustifiable position to hold.
Granted, it’s not “morally wrong” to hold such a position, but it’s a purely irrational, dishonest one, plus it can quickly become a moral issue if you start adding more nonsense on top (which if you already believe something for no reason whatsoever, is a step easily taken).
Mary Ann Evans (who wrote under the pen name of George Eliot) had these people’s numbers back in the 19th century, too:
I’m certain this tradition is even older than that, but it never changes: The True Believers’ belief will be hard and literal when it suits them, but when something challenges that is not easily answered, they will convert their god and beliefs into something nebulous and intangible. Once the challenge passes, they can again convert their god back into something rigid and literal.
Quoting Andy Ihnatko:
This is the foundational flaw of the entire argument. As Aronra says, faith is literal make-believe, and this person is openly advocating willful delusion. This person needs a remedial lesson in skepticism. Nothing more needs to be said.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
Not strictly true; the Catholic church began to call itself that back in the 5th century, to distinguish itself from the Orthodox church when they split after the Council of Chalcedon. Also to distinguish themselves (the ‘true’ church) from the Copts, Arians, Gnostics, and assorted other schismatics, many of whom were around already at that time.
only lal says
Excellent points, PZ! Is Ken Miller listening?
Thanks for this thought.
I’ve always been partial to the new revised revision of the Apostle’s Creed by the Church of England (Not the Nine O’Clock News Synod):
If you need a consciously anachronistic evocation of medieval mystique and grandeur you can’t do better than a high-Anglican eucharistic re-enactment worship ceremony.
That is indeed the take-home lesson.
I have, actually, called a friend who tried to define their god thusly… an atheist.
His reaction was less than copacetic…
not only that, but his statement following:
is grossly ignorant of the reality. In fact, the VAST majority of those claiming to be religious are not secure “in their faith” AT ALL. It barely takes a scratch to see how defensive they get. really.
who the hell are people like Andy actually speaking to? Or is it, as I suspect… nobody. They simply have never actually poked the religious to find out just how weak their arguments are.
wouldn’t be polite and all…
As for cartomancer’s quibbles about ‘no-true-catholic’ before the protestant reformation; that’s flat-out wrong.
Denominational usage of ‘catholic’ is recorded by :
* Ignatius of Antioch (~105CE) in his ‘Letter to Smyrnaeans’ in opposition to non-catholic docetist christian ‘heretics’ :
*Muratorian canon (~170CE) in opposition to non-catholic marcionite christian ‘heretics’ :
*Cyril of Jerusalem (~350CE) :
*Roman Emperor Theodosius ‘Edict of Thessalonica’ (380CE) declaring the official religion to be … wait for it … roman catholic christianity:
Concerning Peter Abelard; his excommunication was lifted by the pope of Rome, he reconciled with Bernard of Clairvaux and was buried in a catholic church. Unlike, say, the non-catholic heads of the CofE – the monarchs of England excommunicated by pope Pius V in 1570 (renewed in 1588).
Anyway, I don’t have to show that “Most” -You have to show that “All”.
Most != All and what you all are doing is called stereotyping and it’s a fallacy.
The general point is that
is an exceedingly simple-minded perspective. What someone may or may not believe really is a personal issue. No two people have the same experiences or the same beliefs.
We run into problems when the personal belief gets tossed into the public square with repercussions agreed upon for failure to conform to whatever norms are out there. God is not so simple to everyone that it can be boiled down into the black and white of being physical or not. And that is a statement of fact which only stereotyping can obscure.
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
Have you read Greta Christina’s response to you @47?
in one sentence, tell me what a Unitarian Universalist believes.
then, define their god for me.
the point sailed right over your head.
until they decide to make claims with it. My guess is that you have NEVER EVER bothered to challenge the claims made by ANY acquaintance that holds a religious ideology.
try it sometime. learn you something and stop being so goddamn pretentious and ignorant.
fuck me, but you’re dense.
seriously, seriously dense.
can’t see the point of continuing really, you can’t even get past the easy rejection of your opening statement.
“ask how you know something, what process you followed to arrive at your conclusion,”
Instead of prattling about the incompatibility of science and religion (would you convert if they were shown compatible indeed, PZ?) this is a much, much stronger point against religion. No theist ever has answered them. The best they can do is “by using logic and reason”. But criticism of Descartes has made clear that no conclusion can be any stronger than the assumptions it’s based on – and those assumption always can be rejected.
I don’t care if it’s a “personal issue”. The fact of the matter is that a belief in god without sufficient evidence is ignorance, and oftentimes make-believe, aka willful delusion. We should call out those who openly hold willful delusions, and shame them into adopting a proper epistemology – for their own good, and for the good of everyone else. People act on their beliefs, and our mode of government requires an informed citizenship, which means we all have a duty to ourselves and others to ensure that the truth spreads and falsehoods die.
I agree no two people have the exact same experience. That’s why we have science to help us figure out what is real and what is not.
What the fuck are you on about? The only one focused on showing “all” believers to have certain characteristic seems to you. The comment that you are apparently originally reacting to, Al Dente’s number 13, never says “all”. It does say “many”. Why does Al Dente have to prove “all”, suddenly? Again, show your work. You are reacting to words that are not actually being said.
I’m afraid the only simple minded perspective here is yours. You seem to be only one who thinks that beliefs have no consequences. And everyone has The Right to believe in nonsense without being exposed to even the slightest criticism. Freedom from contradictory data or some such. You live in a world full of fluffy bunnies and rainbows, apparently. A world where everyone believes in Good Things and Reality is gentle enough such that no one ever suffers when acting on Good Things when Good Things happens to not actually be true. Fuck truth, fuck logic, fuck facts, fuck science, everything is just warm fuzzies in all places and all times.
Yes. Which is exactly what God belief is . Which is exactly the narrative that Vapor Bunny believers feed into when call their nebulous wordwankery “God”. They are casting their lot in with the fundies. They are using themselves as human shields, trying to defend Teh Bibble and Bibble God, by being Teh Good Christians. The kind of Christians that, in practice, regard the Bible as a damn fine poetry book, but will throw a tantrum alongside the fundagelicals if you dare to insult it. The kind of Christian that believes that God is basically a synonym for The Big Bang, and will then be summoned into the fray every time you say “God doesn’t exist” so they can tut-tut you for not being sophisticated enough to see that “God” doesn’t necessarily have to be an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent conscious entity responsible for the creation of the universe and human life. No, of course God can just be a nonsense word used to describe natural phenomenon or human emotions! Of course! And now with the “God doesn’t exist” argument thwarted, they trot away and let the fundies continue to tell us about how that means we should convert to Christianity and how we should start having sex properly, per instructions from millennia old tomes.
It is a bait and switch. I don’t know how many times and in how many ways this needs to be told to you.
And now you suddenly know what God is like. Fancy that.
(Who the fuck was proposing that God was simply physical?)
Al Dente says
As anteprepro says @68, I didn’t say “all”, I said “some”, “most” and “many”. These are all words which do not mean “all.” I’m reminded of a line from the movie “Pulp Fiction”.
Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says
This is new.
Crimson Clupeidae says
I’m not familiar with the author of the rebuttal, but:
This makes me think he doesn’t live in, and isn’t familiar with the US, and is clearly completely unaware of the large swathes of the world like the middle east…..
I think of myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist largely because of something I was taught many years ago. Namely that “a lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack”. I believe in science as a methodology but I don’t think it’s any more of a ‘truth’ than religion is. Although I would argue that the former is more useful in making testable predictions.
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
I used to think this way, back when I first learned about atheism. I thought “well we don’t know either way, so I’ll reserve final judgement and simply say that I don’t know if god exists, but he might”. But then I applied that same reasoning to other fictional beings:
“well we don’t know if dragons/demons/fairies/trolls/elves/Loch Ness Monster exist or not, so I’ll simply reserve final judgement and simply say that I don’t know if dragons/demons/fairies/trolls/elves/Loch Ness Monster exist, but they might”.
Once I looked at it that way, I realized how silly it was. I didn’t believe in those other things. I didn’t think it was possible that flying, fire breathing dragons could possibly exist. I didn’t think that demons from the pit of hell existed. I didn’t think that trolls secretly lived under bridges. I didn’t think any of those were probable. Yet I held out on the possibility that god was still possible.
Looking back, I suspect it was the remains of cultural indoctrination in the US that treats god as a given. Everywhere you look, people talk about god. They invoke him. They worship him. He’s on tv. He’s in music. He’s in politics (where he needs to get the fuck out). He’s in movies. He’s invoked in opposition to evolution. He’s invoked in opposition to marriage equality. People invoke him to oppose the rights of trans people. Several of our holidays are “based” on god.
US society is permeated with god belief. Specifically christian god belief.
I rejected agnosticism once I realized that I’m not agnostic about other fictional entities. I didn’t realize why I rejected god belief *and* agnosticism until years later: when I came across FtB. So often, when theists would show up at various blogs here and proclaim that god exists, among the many responses was “where’s the evidence?” No one was ever able to produce satisfactory evidence. Without evidence, I learned there is no reason to believe that something exists.
In the same way that there’s no evidence to support the existence of dragons, demons, or fairies, there is no evidence to support the existence of any deity. That’s when it clicked with me. That’s when I realized why I’d rejected agnosticism. It’s a hold out. Agnosticism is way of saying “I really don’t want to totally reject belief in god, so I’m going to hold onto this thin thread of hope”.
Another thing I learned is that agnosticism is separate from atheism. Atheism is not about knowing for certain that there is no god. Atheism is about not believing in a god or gods. The reasons vary for some people, but for many (especially here at FtB), they don’t believe in god because there is no evidence to support the existence of god…nor any other deity.
They don’t believe in Odin.
Agnosticism is, IMO, a wishy washy position that tries to situate itself between theism and atheism, but it has no place on a continuum of belief, because agnosticism isn’t about belief. It’s about knowledge. To be agnostic about Thor is to say “I don’t know if Thor does or does not exist”. To be atheistic about Thor is to say (at least for me) “I do not believe in the existence of Thor because there is no evidence that he exists”. Insert the deity of choice in place of Thor, up to and including Yahweh, and the answer remains the same. There is no evidence. I’m not going to believe in things for which there is no evidence (remember, I don’t believe in trolls or fairies either).
Another crucial thing I learned is to be willing to change my mind in the face of evidence. Yes, throughout the whole of human history, no god has ever been proven to exist. Humans created the Aztec gods, the Egyptian gods, and the Japanese gods. Humans are responsible for the creation of the Greco-Roman gods and the Norse gods. We created all of them. There is no more evidence to support their existence than there is for Yahweh. However if evidence is ever provided, and it passes muster-significant muster, bc this is an extraordinary claim-then I’ll readjust my belief. If evidence is provided that substantiates the existence of dragons, demons, trolls, Odin, Thor, Zeus, or Yahweh, I’ll accept that that entity exists.
Doesn’t mean I’ll worship it, or like it (and in the case of Yahweh, that shitstain would get my active hatred).
irrelevant to the point. fail.
then you don’t understand science, nor what truth means.
this will get you started on the road to knowledge:
religion says it relies on revelatory knowledge, but cannnot actually point to a single instance of any such knowledge.
So go ahead; demonstrate a single, solitary “truth” that has been predicted and then supported via religious dogma.
I’m sure you’ll come back with some preposterous definition of truth and then try to use that to ad hoc something in there… just like the religious do.
but, as I said, that will be a learning experience for you if you even attempt it, if you then realize there is no honest way to do so.
“There is infinite variation in people’s actual beliefs.”
For any given, meaningful quality of belief, I doubt it, but yawn anyway.
“We can’t know what’s really in people’s heads.”
Yawn again, since we can see what spews from the mouth and scythes from the hand.
“God is ineffable.”
Super yawn, but a creepy super yawn, because belief in this ineffable god is a horrible two-faced, silent, indwelling mind-beast, which is on one side a solipsistic cloak, and on the other a ghost of tradition, slouching toward the congregation to be born. (Go to almost any mega-church site and read the testimonies of until-recently-young “converts” who have been drawn away from their professedly misguided amorphous beliefs – and the twisted grains of truth therein – toward the living God for whom their hearts yearned all along. I’ve seen that comfort, and that “homecoming,” and whatever else itbis, it is potent in some strange way, and all that supposedly harmless mush turns out to have been a stealth beacon, all along.)
Greta Christina says
objdart @ #60: Hard not to notice that you didn’t reply to the actual person in the conversation who wrote the actual original argument you’re opposing. Right up there @ #47. Anyone else seeing the “comments by women get ignored until a man re-states them” thing?
…or he’s just trolling the thread and directly replying to you would ruin his trolling.
*waves hi to Greta*
Please, feel free to elaborate.
If a floating meandering meaning of god was something good then why not call a chair god? That isn’t much more of a stretch then some of my more liberal religious friends do.
I once gave a talk about Humanism at our local UU church one Sunday and a gentleman who flirted with Buddhism tried to argue about the existence of god by using an example of why milk left out on a stoop in Ireland goes sour. He was trying to prove his point that science can’t prove everything. His conclusion was that leprechauns made the milk go sour and science couldn’t prove they didn’t.
I started to the explain the scientific method and how high speed cameras could be set up to watch the milk and tests could be run in a secure place etc…. but the guy continued to say that since science couldn’t disprove leprechauns then it was no better than religious faith.
*sigh* I felt sorry for the guy.
Bullshit. Science is the best way humans have of approximating truth. That is why you believe in it as “a methodology”: because that it is what is. A methodology of determining facts. Using logic and statistics as systematic tools to better understand the world around us. And what is religion? What is it’s methodology? It has none. Religion is just dogma. It is a “just so” story about reality, without logic, without grounding in fact. It is the trust that the people in charge somehow have a magically attuned awareness beyond the physical world and have accurately described a world beyond what we can readily observe, and thus are allegedly incapable of proving that they are right. That isn’t truth. That is guillibility and blind obedience. Or “faith” as the believers like to phrase it.
Science is a logically valid method of discovery, that lets people show their work. Religion is a nebulous con game, the fever dreams of Glorious Leaders who speak sweet nothings that resonate emotionally and substitute word games for evidence, substitute intuition for fact, substitute armchair “intellectualism” for actual inquiry, and always seem to want something in return for their Wisdom. If you think both have equal truth values, you are seriously mistaken.
Also, one last point. This quote:
Is bullshit if you don’t ignore the flip side. What’s the flip side?
Consider three ideas, all related to burden of proof: “Can’t Prove a Negative”, Occam’s Razor, and the Null Hypothesis.
“Can’t Prove a Negative” isn’t an absolute, but it is the general idea that it takes far more effort to prove something DOESN’T exist then it takes to prove that something does. That is, if say Bigfoot existed, it should be easy to prove it. Find tracks, find habitat, find droppings, find dead bodies. But if Bigfoot didn’t exist? How would you go about proving that? By scouring the entire fucking planet to show that, in fact, there is no trace of Bigfoot or anything resembling a Bigfoot currently alive on the planet. It is virtually impossible to prove, and Bigfoot is an EASY case, because he is purportedly a physical, natural, biological entity with normal biological functions and needs.
Similarly, Occam’s Razor isn’t an absolute but is a simplifying assumption. Generally, assume as few entities as necessary. Cut out unnecessary entities that are just assumed to exist in a process. cadfile’s example of man purporting that leprechauns made milk spoil would be an example of this. They are just assuming that leprechauns exist to explain the mechanism of milk spoiling. When the simpler scenario is that no such entity exists, since there is no evidence that they in fact do, and that milk spoiling is a function of known factors, or just the milk itself.
Finally, the null hypothesis is a concept in statistics. Essentially, it is the assumption that things are the same until proven to be different. Because statistical tests are capable of distinguishing the difference between multiple groups, but are not capable of proving that they are the same. So, if there is a difference between two groups but the difference is too small, statistical tests would most likely be incapable of detecting it. But if there was no difference, statistical tests would be incapable of proving they were the same either. Which is why the null hypothesis assumes that there is no difference by default and awaits evidence to the contrary.
All together: Burden of proof is the person making a positive claim, about a difference or about something existing, because it is the simplest assumption, and because it is almost impossible to prove that there is no difference or that something doesn’t exist.
This is not a reason to adopt True Agnosticism on the existence of something. This is not a reason to say “maybe” and sit directly on the fence. The default assumption, without evidence to the contrary, is on something not existing. That is what skepticism is, saying “no until proven otherwise”. It’s true for ghosts, true for Nessie, true for alchemy, true for zombies, true for goblins , true for homeopathy, and true for Little Green Men from Space. And it is also true for gods. That is what atheism is. Saying that there is no proof of gods, and perpetually waiting to have our minds changed. Just like we do for every other thing that has yet to proven.
That should be: “Burden of proof is ON the person making a positive claim…”
I would split this into at least three separate propositions.
(a) Some creator God is necessary to explain existence, evolution or not.
I think this runs counter to science, which has shown a trend of supplying well-supported naturalistic explanations for unknown phenomena, and can reasonably be expected to do so in the future. I.e. “God of the gaps.” is weak, rearguard defense of theism.
(b) Some kind of omnipotent God exists independent of any need for one to explain natural phenomenon.
I don’t think this runs counter to science, but I understand the reasons it might be considered to. Occam’s razor rejects unnecessarily complex explanations. So no conclusion involving the existence of God can be scientific. Beyond that it’s a philosophical question whether that makes such a conclusion worthless or not.
My take on Occam’s razor is not that the simplest explanation is always “true”. It could still be falsified by new, contradictory evidence. It merely provides a potentially infinite series of explanations in order of simplicity. The simplest is preferred until it is shown to fail, and then it’s worth the effort of considering more complicated ones. There could be infinitely many explanations, but they only need to be evaluated “lazily” (in the computer science sense).
If I’m looking for my car keys, will I eventually cut up the cantaloupe in front of me to see if I’ll find them inside? Well, anyway, not until I’ve considered many, many more reasonable possibilities. But am I a bad, wrong-headed, person if I don’t rule it out a priori? That seems to be the point of contention.
So, where to put the existence of God on the big list of working assumptions? I think it might be there somewhere, but not up at the front until I see stronger evidence to suggest so.
(c) There exist god-like beings in the sense that they are at least as powerful as gods described in recorded mythology (Greek and Roman, Sumerian, Icelandic, etc.).
I think this is likely to be true in the sense of Clarke’s law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Of course, there are particular actions attributed to Zeus or whomever that might violate the laws of physics. But other things (calling lightning down from the sky?) are solvable by sufficient technology. The only reason we don’t consider many modern capabilities to be god-like is that we already know that they can be done with technology. This a case of moving goalposts.
Assuming there is other intelligent life in the universe, surely somewhere there is an example of technology not only far more capable than ours but more capable than we can even imagine right now.
So am I saying I don’t believe in God but I believe in transcendent space aliens? In short, yes, though I don’t believe they have ever visited earth.
As a thought experiment, I have wondered what it would take for an intelligence beyond my own to convince me that it was a god. I want to rule out cheating here. I.e., it wouldn’t take much for it to apply some kind of nanotech brain surgery to make me believe anything. What I mean is could the intelligence, given sufficient understanding of human thinking and its quirks and limitations, present an argument in natural language that would persuade me to worship it?
It seems likely to me that this might be the case. If a fast-talking con-man can sell swampland to rubes, then somebody out there ought to be able to convince me that they are a god. It’s just a matter of degree. This is another reason I’m suspicious of any conclusions I might reach about religion. Note that the mere fact of my suspicion will not be good enough to protect me from the persuasion of the putative transcendent intelligence.
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
Would you request that they define what a ‘god’ is first?
I might, but under the assumption that they possessed a brain that was of sufficiently greater capability than my human brain (yet nonetheless finite and fully explainable by naturalistic principles) then whatever definitions I set would not help.
If the definition of god is “Of comparable power to the Greek and Roman pantheon” then the persuasion would be as simple as a demonstration and it would not require a particularly difficult argument. But I don’t think I’d worship such a being (might be scared to death, but that’s something different). If the point of the persuasion was to get me to follow the space alien as a believer, it’s less about definition in the abstract than a psychological understanding of godhood.
Note: a big part in all of this is to rule out the most plausible explanation that I’m going crazy, but transcendent ET ought have that base covered easily.
It’s possible that something like “la la la not listening” would be an adequate defense, but I don’t see how to rule out the possibility that I am much more gullible than I like to imagine, particularly when faced with an intelligence beyond my own. I think this is a reasonable induction when I see how other people can be persuaded of things that I know how to refute.
Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall says
I agree the demonstration of superficially god-like abilities would be simple. How do you decide whether any apparent “breaking” of natural law is real, or an artefact of human misunderstanding of nature, though? F’rinstance, if this putative god demonstrates FTL travel, is it because of supernatural* ability, or is it simply the case that there’s a fundamental mistake in our theory?
*Another term which, like “god,” I’ve never seen a sensible definition of.
The idea that gods have to break natural laws is not a requirement, and I think it’s really a very new idea, not shared by most mythologies. What the gods do is nature.
The gods only need to be a lot more powerful than their human worshippers. Greek and Roman gods are subject to limitations (in power, thinking skills, and self-control) that suggest the existence of higher laws that circumscribe their actions. Even the God of the Old Testament doesn’t really seem omnipotent or omniscient. The principle of “do it right the first time” is clearly missing from the first chapters of Genesis.
I agree that from a 21st century degree of sophistication, if someone shows up and says “I am Zeus! Watch me call lightning from the sky!” and does it, I’m going think “Big deal, Tesla could do that over a hundred years ago.” but it’s a case of moving goalposts.
And, sure, if I saw a demonstration of FTL travel, my working assumption would be a better understanding of science, not a transcendent independence from science. But I’m trusting the alien to work a little harder to get my brain on board with the program. I’m not saying the alien would actually be a god, just that they would be able to convince me (and without actual neurosurgery). They would also be sufficiently powerful that under most historical definitions of god, their divinity would not even be subject to debate.
The fact that our definition of divinity seems to retreat a little every time we figure out how to do a new trick is a sign that the whole concept is questionable, but that’s actually the point of my thought experiment. I don’t know what it would take to convince me I was in the presence divinity, but I don’t feel I am so far removed from “shepherds tending their flocks” that I have reached a state of immunity.
But again, this is a thought experiment, and I’m not shilling a new religion or anything.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
‘God’: An entity of great* power which demands worship/supplication.
* While this may be superhuman**, it is not necessarily so, such as the assorted divine emperors, god-kings, and personality cultists found in many cultures across history.
** Superhuman meaning to demonstrate abilities which humans cannot match with existing technology, or possibly abilities humans cannot match with any technology.
That just gave me an A-ha moment. Perfectly put.
Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall says
What the gods do is nature.
Okay, fair point. We’re still at a loss to define “god,” though. Presumably there’s a defining point at which god-like should be considered godly?
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
So when Zeus transforms into a swan or Medusa transforms someone to stone that isn’t them breaking the laws of nature, that’s then working within them [the laws of nature], and we just don’t understand the mechanics of it?
Fair point Tony! But I do think that “what the gods do is nature” is a damn good description of most of what gods do. Hell, that’s basically why gods became things in the first place. Animism, where gods were just powerful spirits used as an explanations for natural phenomenon, such as the existence/behavior of certain places (forests, mountains, oceans) or weather patterns (lightning, rain, drought). But even then, they violate nature by, ya know, being ghosts and all.
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
Ok, I was looking at it the wrong way. I was thinking about things in terms of gods being these supernatural creatures that bend reality to their whim. Instead, I should have been looking at reality through the eyes of people that don’t understand how things work. People like that would attribute the seemingly awesome power of lightning to a god. In that way, what that god does is nature.
Here is my definition of God(s):
Ghost + Wizard
Let’s see if the dictionary agrees! Merriam Webster sez:
Ghost: One of the definitions is “spirit”. The definition of spirit that references “ghost” says “an often malevolent being that is bodiless but can become visible”. Another alternate definition is soul which is “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”
Wizard: A “wise man” or “one skilled in magic”, and magic is “the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces”.
God: Defined as “a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality”
Sounds about right to me.
God = Ghost Wizard
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
Does that apply to a deistic god though? Does deism require worship?
You’d need to ask someone who believed in them back when that was a living religion, but I’m pretty sure the answer would not be the same as you’d get from anyone today.
The laws of nature just a few hundred years ago were imagined to include things like shed horsehairs growing into eels. I think it’s safe to say that spontaneous generation and other vitalist views (now refuted) were intended as an explanation of the natural, not the supernatural, though they are lacking in any mechanist explanation that would be accepted today.
So… Zeus transforms himself into a swan… clearly not something you see every day, but is it supernatural or just the actions of a being with more natural power than you have?
Same with God breathing life into mud and making humans. While that requires powers beyond human, the breath of life in a human would be as much as part of the natural order as anything else that is human. (But not to overstate it, I think the Biblical division between God and nature is more significant than in many other mythologies.)
I think the distinction we hold today is an artifact of the supernatural receding rapidly into the gaps rather than a universal distinction that has been understood through most of history.
Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall says
Hmm. I agree with anteprepro’s definitions, to a degree. I’m more interested in the question of how we’d decide a real being was a god though, if they turned up on the White House lawn tomorrow, claiming to be one.
For me, its abilities would have to be inherent, rather than technologically enhanced or enabled. Beyond that, I’m kinda stuck. What level of ability does a being have to have, to be considered more than just a more clever/powerful/whatever being than we’d previously met?
Worship is another question, for me. One of my major beefs with Yahweh as a character is that he demands or expects worship for something not of his doing; for being naturally more powerful than human beings.
Tony!: I don’t even know what “require human worship” means or entails in that definition, honestly. And I do not know if Deistic Gods require worship. But it does have supernatural attributes and powers, and controls (or rather, controlled) a part of reality.
Perhaps the better definition was: “a spirit or being that has great power, strength, knowledge, etc., and that can affect nature and the lives of people : one of various spirits or beings worshipped in some religions”
But it doesn’t matter much for the purposes of my joke!
(Honestly, if I think of “require human worship” as “worship me or else”, very few gods fit the model!)
Yeah, there is a bit of quandary here. Even assuming we could distinguish a sufficiently advanced technology from magic, It is almost impossible to distinguish a superhero or a powerful spirit from a god. They’re basically the same thing.
I guess the first question is proving that magic is in fact happening. Then the second question is determining whether the magic user is basically human or is pretty much Magic All The Way Down. If the latter, the final question is to see there are other Magic All The Way Down entities and where that creature fits on their hierarchy. I think if you found a high power and high authority magic user that was not human in nature at all, you would be justified to call that a god. But it is still ultimately an arbitrary decision to not just call it a spirit. See the example of Christianity and its Satan and its angels. Super powerful spirits arbitrarily NOT called gods, so only the One Super King of Angels could get the distinction.
(Oh, and in my opinion, in my last comment, the “proving that magic is happening” bit is the part that is basically nigh impossible. Mostly because a natural explanation is almost always possible, and even if it seems unlikely, it is usually far more likely than the supernatural alternative. And if you consistently have magic happening, if it gets consistent enough, it is indistinguishable from “nature”.)
I would say that if they wanted to convince you and failed, they are definitely not. Or at least not a very powerful god.
There are three categories: technological, natural, and supernatural, and trying to keep them separate seems like a losing battle to me. Let’s say that the being in question comes from an ancient and wise civilization from another star. Long ago, they replaced their natural brains with artificial brains of far greater capacity, not only beyond human imagination, but beyond that of their own natural ancestors, who were already far advanced of humanity. So in that sense, they are technologically enhanced.
On the other hand, this is an ancient and wise civilization. They have had a lot more time to mull over the philosophical conundrums that puzzle the best 21st century human philosophers. And what’s more, they actually came up with really good answers that satisfy our objections and appear to us as transcendent truth.
So just having a conversation with White House Lawn ET is a kind of enlightenment that goes beyond anything provided by any religion of earthly origin. Is ET a god? A prophet at least?
Note that my gut reaction is that such an enlightened alien would not demand worship, which is a holdover from despotism. But it still seems that such a being would have a stronger claim to divinity than many of the hopelessly flawed beings that have been identified as gods and goddesses.
Tony! The Queer Shoop says
I’m with you.
This reminds me of a discussion a few years about (I think it was here, maybe elsewhere) about what would convince people that god existed. I remember some people saying that if an entity made its presence known to the world simultaneously, and unambiguously, while demonstrating abilities consistent with its abilities in the bible, that would convince them. My problem with that was, how do we know that’s god, and not just oh, say, Loki? The feats performed by god as seen in the bible don’t require omnipotence, just X amount of power.
Maybe not. What if said entity simply has a poor grasp of what it means to persuade people? Why would godhood be determined by whether or not humans can be convinced you’re a god?
I think part of it comes back to defining what a god is first.
Would you say a characteristic of godhood is not being a flawed creature?
Oh, I did just remember that defining “god” is a distinct task from defining “God”. Since the latter automatically suggests a monotheistic god, precluding the existence of other gods, automatically putting it at the top of any hierarchy, and putting the entirety of nature within the god’s domain of power. As such, there is MORE baggage related to “God” than there is to “god”. Also especially since “God” pretty much exclusively refers to the Abrahamic God, described in various holy books. The fact some people try to desperately scrub off all traces of that holy text and pretend it is some squeaky clean New Idea that doesn’t mean much of anything at all is obvious bullshit for exactly that reason. If a believer wants to play coy word games and take refuge in vagueness, they should at least have the decency of removing the capital letter so that it isn’t SO obvious that they are bullshitting us.
Al Dente says
I have a similar objection to Yahweh. He’s a narcissistic bully. “Worship me or else!”
I also think that magic may be reasonable to define subjectively. A television isn’t magic to me because I have some hope of understanding how it is possible (a rough idea of the raster scan, of RF transmission, etc. even if I couldn’t build one). But it would certainly have appeared more magical a thousand years ago than the work of very convincing conjurers who might have had people believing they were doing magic.
Today, there is a naturalist metatheory accepted by many people that even if you don’t understand exactly how something happens, it must not be magical. That may be a reasonable working assumption, but it doesn’t really explain what’s going on. It’s also not new. Lucretius had the same assumption in De Rerum Natura, though he did not really have good natural explanations for most of what he claimed.
I’m not sure that making an intrinsic, objective distinction between magic and technology is very useful, particularly starting with naturalistic assumptions that turn magic into the empty set.
The subjective definition has one interesting property, which is that you are not allowed to claim something isn’t magic unless you have some argument for its plausibility of functioning in the natural universe as you understand it. I would argue that from that standpoint, a smartphone is magic for many people. If they want to claim they understand it as technology, they have a certain amount of work to do before they can reasonably make the claim.
That’s a good point. I guess a misunderstood god would be possible. In any mythology that I’m aware of, there never seems to be any question unless the god is trying to conceal their divinity. An anti-hero god would make a good story. The closest that comes to mind is the god Glimmung in Philip K. Dick’s Galactic Pot Healer.
Definitely not. In many mythologies the gods have obvious flaws. The God of the Bible is claimed to be perfect by many theologians, but this view does not seem to be backed up Old Testament accounts.
To make my assumptions explicit (me #107), my working definition of “god” is based on how the word is used in various mythologies. I can’t think of any other reasonable way to build up expectations for the term. I can think of two distinct cases of revealed divinity off the top of my head from unrelated religions: the transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels, and the passage in the Baghavad Gita in which Krishna reveals his divinity. Both correspond to remove-all-doubt bow-down-and-worship moments for other people present.
If you happen to be a god, this is the ace in hole to winning nearly any argument. There’s a certain amount of back and forth, and then “OK, if you still don’t believe me, how about this?”
But I might have been too glib in my reply to Daz. I like the idea of a Rodney Dangerfield god who can’t even convince people he is one. I’m not sure there are any precedents in world religion, however.
Good arguments, take it from this random internet person! Although I think I disagree with your main point:
because I’d imagine if I think something is illogical now (1+1=3, perhaps), then I’ll think it’s illogical regardless of how intelligent I become by brain augmentations. Humanity might live in a matrix, or a universe created by some vast civilization, who are themselves created by something vaster, and who are trillions of years old. But just like both I and the prodigious parrot Alex (who died in 2007) know that 1+1 does not equal 3, so both I and these vast super beings would know that, when presented with something that is beyond their civilization’s current knowledge (perhaps a materialized 200 foot godzilla Jesus who turns oceans into wine), the only thing they *can* do is to try to become advanced enough to understand and explain it in terms of the actions of another highly advance civilization(/natural phenomena that’s ultimately just particle physics, say). If we will never become that advanced (perhaps because living on a sun like star limits our civilization to 1 billion years, but explaining 200 foot godzilla Jesus requires 2 billion years of knowledge) then we don’t *ever* jump to the conclusion that godzilla Jesus is divine, because that’s not logical.
So I can be sure that if ever I do end up part of a singularity and become more intelligent than the present combined brain power of all humanity, I’d still think both that 1+1=3 and concluding that gozilla Jesus were divine (instead of saying, give me a few million years to crunch the numbers) were not “logical” (perhaps I use that word incorrectly).
Well, sorry for ranting, I think these things sometimes :)…
Sorry, not Daz, but to PaulBC. That’s embarrassing…
This is asinine, and a complete non-starter.
To everyone else talking about gods and magic, let me insert my standard rant on the subject.
Talking about “natural” vs “supernatural” is ill defined nonsense. I’m going to take an even stronger step, and I’m sure I’m going to lose some of you, but stick with me. Methodological naturalism is also junk. It simply does not describe how science actually operates.
Rationality and science are in the business about learning about the observable shared reality which we live in.
When I release a hammer, it falls. It would be perverse to deny this. But why does it fall? Because gravity. You can explain gravity as a force, or gravity as a particular geometry of spacetime. However, it does not matter for my next question. Why is it true that there is a universal attractive force, which we call gravity? Or why is it true that spacetime has this particular geometry which bends in the presence of mass? No one knows. It is, and we know it is because of the evidence.
When we ask this kind of “why” question, what we are doing is we are asking for an explanation of a particular phenomenon or model in terms of another model. I can explain why magnets repel each other in terms of the magnetic field. I can explain the magnetic field in terms of the electromagnetic force. I might even be able to describe that in terms of string theory or some grand unified theory or theory of everything someday. But just like gravity, we would have no explanation for why those are true, except because the evidence indicates that it is.
(Shamelessly stolen from Feynman here:)
Suppose tomorrow a certain Latin prayer was discovered which when recited, would cause any water in a held cup to transform into wine. Suppose this was reproducible at will by everyone. It would be published in Nature, Science, and every other major journal. Scientists would quickly try to discover the limits of this: How quietly could you say it. How off could your pronunciation be before it stopped working. Etc. Perhaps new industry would start up where people would use this incantation instead of conventional wine-making to start producing wine.
Put one way, one way we could interpret this Latin incantation, this “magic prayer”, is that it’s magic. Or we could identify it as a new fundamental force of nature. Whether it’s natural or supernatural is a matter of completely arbitrary labeling which adds absolutely no benefit to the conversation. “Supernatural” vs “natural” is an entirely arbitrary cultural distinction. You can see this in older animist religions where they didn’t make this distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”. Everything had a spirit, and that’s just the way the world was.
Whether it’s “natural” or “supernatural” is irrelevant. What matters is that it’s observable. If it’s observable, you can do science on it, and that’s all that matters. Whether it’s “natural” or “supernatural” is an entirely irrelevant word game which has absolutely no place in the scientific method. “Methodological naturalism” is bullshit.
In fact, the only purpose I can tell of the word “supernatural” is for theists to use it as a “escape from rationality and science” free card. I refuse to let that card be played. If you have a belief or claim knowledge about some thing in our shared causal reality, then you better have evidence. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mundane claim or a claim about gods. The exact same standard applies. Consequently, I also have to correct everyone on my side whenever they use the “natural” or “methodological naturalism” as though it means something. It doesn’t. You’re just playing into the theist’s double standards as soon as you acknowledge it.
In other words, NOMA is bullshit. There is only one way of knowing for our shared causal reality, and that is science.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C Clarke.
“Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!”
Girl Genius Webcomics
As a separate post because of one more link.
PS: Another related question is whether we could demonstrate that something is all powerful or merely very powerful. We could never prove something beyond all doubt. I can never prove beyond all doubt that hammers will fall when released tomorrow. However, we could accumulate lots of evidence which could only reasonably lead to a single conclusion: that this particular creature can do whatever it wants, and reality reshapes itself to its whims.
PPS: However, rather than defining god and defining what are its properties, I’d first prefer a demonstration that it exists. Rather than argue about what properties we should fiat give to this word, instead I would much prefer that you demonstrate to me that the thing exists. Once you demonstrate that there’s actually something to talk about, then we can measure it to see what properties it is.
Pet peeve alert: supernatural versus paranormal.
The connotations of ‘super-‘ include some kind of higher Platonic realm of Ideal Forms in a terribly sophisticated philosophy understandable only after years of deep reading of a vast canon of literature in ancient languages. Or something.
Whereas ‘para-‘ seems to be used about a co-existing yet invisible/intangible world accessible only by the terribly sensitively attuned to … ummm … quantum vibrations of spiritual entities from a multitude of dimensions. Or something.
Anyway, since I credit neither of these epistemologies with accuracy, I prefer to switch them up and call ghost-hunting ‘super-normal’ and theology ‘para-natural’.
Just for the irritation fun factor.
Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall says