Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Asymptotically approaching religion

Good stuff in the atheism discussion.

John Wilkins points out that religion is a human institution, and like all such is responsible for a lot of good, evil, and none of the above. Ascription is difficult to impossible, and because religion is an inextricable part of human culture and psychology, it won't go away just because some scientists don't like it.

Sean Carroll has a very interesting post where he (starting from Terry Eagleton's negative review of The God Delusion) dissects the standard Western idea of God into its component parts: the abstract, impersonal, and universal god of the Greek philosophers, and the personal tribal deity of the Hebrews. This post, more than any other, is resonating with my own semi-articulated thinking, so I'll jump off with it.

The one idea in my head that won't go away is this: God is not an existing object, like a chair or a person or a teapot orbiting Jupiter. Whatever the word "God" means, it's not that, not this. Whether you are an atheist or theist, it seems clear that whatever kind of existence you believe in, it's not the kind of existence engaged in my ordinary objects, but something else, something that ordinary language fails at capturing.

There are other things we think about that have an existence of a kind other than chairs and teapots; things which are real (in some sense) but not material. These would include concepts (like the number 2) and fictional characters (Harry Potter), as well as religious concepts like gods, spirits, and souls. It is at best misleading to say that these either exist or don't exist. My strong intuition is that both theism and atheism, at least in their naive forms, are philosophical mistakes.

Of course such intellectual games satisfy nobody. The faithful don't believe in abstractions, and the skeptical don't want to be bothered with sophistry.

Carroll points out out a deep flaw in Eagleton's argument. Eagleton chides Dawkins for having a naive concept of God, as opposed to the more abstract kind preferred by sophisticated theologians. Fine, But then Eagleton goes on to attribute anthropomorphc properites like love and creativity to what was until now a vague abstraction like "the ground of being". I may as well quote Carroll at length:

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

Carroll goes on with an excellent analysis of the incompatiblity of these two concepts of God, which is entirely worth reading, but I disagree with his conclusion that the incompatibility and incoherence of these ideas means that God doesn't exist. As I said, both existence and non-existence seem inapplicable predicates.

I believe that "God" is a coherent idea (or meme if you will), as it seems to be, since both theists and atheists seem to have a rough agreement about what they are talking about, and just disagree on its ontological status. It's not coherent in the philosophical sense (as Carroll shows), but coherent in the sense that its a stable idea, a mind-virus that thrives in the environment of human culture. Is it an idea like "Harry Potter", that is, purely fictional and arbitrary? Or is it more like a mathematical idea, like pi or the Pythagorean theorem, immaterial objects that seem to have a real existence outside of human culture and invention? Harry Potter is likely to be forgotten in a thousand years (well, maybe not...) but God is likely to stay, despite the best efforts of people like Dawkins.

My intuition, which I can't yet articulate, is that there is something about the concept of God that can almost be captured in a formal mathematical way, something that makes it a necessary concept of minds that are conscious and have agency. God's ontological status is somewhere between Harry Potter (wholly fictional and arbitrary) and pi (an apparently inevitable aspect of some deep structure of reality). Or so my flailing intuition tells me.

5 comments:

goatchowder said...

"The faithful don't believe in abstractions, and the skeptical don't want to be bothered with sophistry."

That's very, very good. I think you nailed it right there... the "category error" approach that the more wizened old religions have arrived at hundreds or even thousands of years ago in order to resolve these conflicts.

I've known a few Buddhists, Confucians, and Hindus, as well as a larger number of devout Catholics and Orthodox Jews, but don't recall any of them ever having a problem with, for example, evolution.

I mostly find the "science vs. religion" problem within newer religions like evangelical Christianity and Islam, and some of the new-agey occult systems and pseudo-sciences. The more wizened old theologies don't seem to demand the same kind of blind renunciation of empiricism.

Nor do they claim or expect their dogma to pass any kind of empirical test of reality, and in fact actively discourage such efforts. When I was a kid, the Catholic priests used to shrug off our probing questions about the many howlingly ridiculous tenets of their dogma by answering "It's a mystery", in much the same dismissive way a Zen master might answer "Mu!"-- and for much the same reason. It pissed us off because we thought they were being intellecutally lazy (and maybe they were), but actually we were asking invalid questions-- category error.

I was just dealing with this kind of thing today with my daughter. She picked up out of my collection of mystical texts, an Aleister Crowley book, and asked what it was. "A book of spells and magick", I replied. She was startled, "Real magic!?". Well, I don't know. The guy who wrote it certainly thought so... sometimes, and other times he was just making a bizarre joke and/or trying to scare or annoy people.

And that's exactly what I told her, because, that's pretty much my understanding of Crowley. And I'd safely say the same of a great many of the other religious and occult books I've read, including the bible. Praise "Bob".

"Do magic potions really work?", she asked. Heh, you mean like aspirin? Or penicillin? Or psilocybin? The questions "is it real" or "does it work" are practical, empirical matters: whip out the scientific method to answer them. We continue to discover more of the "magic" potions of native peoples that have powerful medicinal uses. Others aren't "real" and are symbolic instead. Testing them is how you find out. And that was my answer.

So I guess I just don't see where the problem is. If you don't care whether things are "real" or not, you are in the world of mysticism, where religion and the occult are your friend. If you do care whether things are "real" or not, then you are in an empirical world and the tools of science are the best ones available.

The "religion vs. science" question doesn't make much sense to me anymore, because I view science as a tool and not a theology or an ideology. It's even possible to use the tools of science for testing theologies: if you can determine some means of measuring your subjective quality of life, then explore a number of mystical systems in turn, measuring in each the changes in your experience of life. Pick the one that works best for you, or make up your own, and have fun.

By the way, I owe this perspective to Robert Anton Wilson, who in turn seems to have picked it up from Giordano Bruno and Albert Korzybski.

M.C. said...

It is at best misleading to say that these either exist or don't exist. My strong intuition is that both theism and atheism, at least in their naive forms, are philosophical mistakes.


Yes! Excellent. Precisely why I refuse to call myself a theist, and instead label myself as a "non-atheist".


Of course such intellectual games satisfy nobody.


That is because much of human belief and allegiance is based on dualistic tribalism. And to tribe-members, "if you're not with us, you're against us". Robin Hanson wrote a great post about this at Overcoming Bias.

But at some point we outgrow wanting to belong to one tribe and battle the other. It's clear you are coming to that place. . . I like how Rumi puts it:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.

meaningness said...

It's weird how in the Western tradition, going back at least to Pre-Socratics, there is this idea that things either exist or don't, and that we know what that means. No one ever seems to ask.

Once you ask: "what does 'exists' mean?", and fail to get an answer, many of the conundrums of Western Phil fall apart.

(And, I might add, much of Buddhist Phil, which probably inherited the "existence" problematic from the Greeks.)

mtraven said...

Amen to both parts of that: that questioning what "exists" means makes some problems go away, and also that it is very mysterious why hardly anybody seems to do that. It seems stunningly obvious, with no great sophistication required.

Lorraine said...

The one idea in my head that won't go away is this: God is not an existing object, like a chair or a person or a teapot orbiting Jupiter. Whatever the word "God" means, it's not that, not this. Whether you are an atheist or theist, it seems clear that whatever kind of existence you believe in, it's not the kind of existence engaged in my ordinary objects, but something else, something that ordinary language fails at capturing.

That's why, instead of asking people whether God exists, I asked them whether "there are aspects of reality that are truly transcendent." This is what they said.